Large stone building with all window glass blown out and roof damaged.

The bomb-damaged east wing of the Dolphin Inn, photographed in May 1942 © Historic England Archive. AA42/03741
The bomb-damaged east wing of the Dolphin Inn, photographed in May 1942 © Historic England Archive. AA42/03741

Norwich: Another Victim of the Baedeker Raids

The historic cities of Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury were targets of a new wave of bombing raids between April and June 1942.

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. 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.

Two men stand next to the remains of the Church of St Julian in July 1942. Source: Historic England Archive. OWS01/17/511 | Church of St Julian on the National Heritage List for England

Norwich during the raids

Norwich was an old city with a medieval centre with narrow streets. It had previously suffered ‘tip and run’ attacks during 1940. These attacks were made by lone or a small number of aircraft, flying low to avoid radar detection and dropping a single load of bombs before leaving. Norwich had never experienced a concentrated raid. 

This changed when Norwich was bombed on the nights of 27–8 April, 29–30 April, 8–9 May and 26–27 June 1942. At the time, the city had a population of 125,000 including around 15,000 who were registered as fire guards. 

Many historic buildings and houses in the city centre were destroyed by fire and high explosives. Wartime reports recorded that on the first night around 30 aircraft dive bombed "prominent buildings, especially Woodlands Emergency Hospital, and workers houses" (TNA HO 192/200).

A man walks past the roofless remains of the Boar’s Head inn in June 1942. Source: Historic England Archive. OWS01/17/517.

Chocolate fire guards

The first raid was fierce. In just 90 minutes, 160 high explosive bombs and thousands of incendiaries fell on the city.

The second attack was shorter - only 40 minutes - but even more destructive as high explosives fractured a water main.

When fire bombs set light to printing works next to Caley’s chocolate factory, the company’s own fire fighters tried to extinguish the flames using their own water supply. However, when another aircraft dropped bombs on the chocolate factory, and the wind and explosions blew burning material and embers in through the broken windows, there was not enough water left.

Both businesses were lost despite the efforts of around 30 fire guards, and parts of the factory were still smouldering over a week later.

A group photo of six members of Mackintosh and Caley's factory fire brigade in uniform. Three men stand each side of a fire appliance with the two closest to it resting an arm on it. In the background is the brick wall of a factory building.
Mackintosh and Caley's factory fire brigade © Image courtesy of

Young hero

One of those injured in the fire at Caley’s was John David Grix, a 15-year-old student who was working as a cycle messenger during the raids.

Grix was blown off his bicycle five times during the raid and suffered burns to his hands from the Caley’s fire. Despite this he carried on working. As well as carrying messages he put out an incendiary bomb by a garage at Earlham Road and saved a house in Surrey Street by closing off a gas leak. He became the youngest person to receive a gallantry award for his bravery.

When the King visited Norwich to see the damage done by the raids, Grix, by now something of a local celebrity, confessed that he had lied about his age in order to become a messenger. The King was reported to have said that he "should think he will be forgiven for that" ('Western Daily Press', 13 October 1942).

School attack

Many buildings hit by the blast from high explosives could not be saved. In Gladstone Street, houses hit by two 50-kilogram bombs "showed a curious characteristic of much Norwich terraced housing. The front is of good white bricks with very narrow joints. The cross walls and back of soft red brick with thick lime mortar. The front brickwork tends to come down in large clumps, the back crumbles up" (TNA HO 192/200).

Investigators noted that many less damaged houses lost tiles from their roofs, but as many had been roofed with pantiles on a bed of reeds they slipped and piled up like a pack of cards. Many could be quickly reused for repairs.

Buildings hit by incendiary bombs could survive. A wartime report in The National Archives records how the Grammar School was "saved by the energy and courage of the Headmaster and boys (fortunately it was not holiday time)" (TNA HO 192/209).

A container of 36 incendiary bombs fell on the Grammar School setting light to several buildings. The two-storey main building was 126 feet long and built of brick and flint with wooden floors and a tile roof. The headmaster and boys tackled fires in the Physics Laboratory, bicycle shed and Manual Instruction Room. Six firebombs set fire to the ceiling of the school’s single-story arcade and although three stirrup pumps were used, the fire service had to put it out (TNA HO 192/209).

The school’s lodge was not so lucky. It was also hit while the Headmaster and his pupils were tackling the other fires.

An aerial photograph from 1946, showing Norwich Cathedral and surrounding buildings, including the Grammar School. Evidence of wartime bomb damage can still be seen. Source: Historic England Archive. EAW001934 | Norwich Cathedral on the National Heritage List for England

The cathedral

The Baedeker raids were meant to destroy historic buildings. Norwich Cathedral, the city’s "chief object of interest" according to the Baedeker guide, was obviously a target (Baedeker, 1887, 452).

In the final raid in June around 90 incendiaries were dropped on buildings in and around the Cathedral Close. Of these, 13 failed to ignite and 18 burned out without causing fires but 19 fires were started.

Most of these were extinguished by the cathedral’s fire guards. Three more on the Palace Transept roof were put out by the National Fire Service (NFS) using a trailer pump.

At one point a container of 36 incendiaries broke through the chancel roof and the fire gained a strong hold before it was noticed. It was first tackled by stirrup pumps and mainly put out by the NFS using a hose from a trailer pump. The fire continued to smoulder however and broke out again along the ridge several times. It was finally extinguished 14 hours later by stirrup pumps.

The fire guards and fire service had been able to save the Cathedral because they were well prepared. A report on the raid noted:

The Cathedral appears to have been saved by the resource and energy of Mr Whittingham (senior fire guard and surveyor to the Dean and Chapter) and one or two assistants. Vulnerable parts of the Cathedral had been sandbagged and concreted. Mr Whittingham stresses the point that it is essential to have someone in charge who will direct and lead the fire party - someone familiar with all the buildings.

The National Archives of the UK (TNA HO 192/209)

Overall the raids killed more than 200 citizens with a further 850 injured. Several historic buildings were destroyed as were many more homes.

The remains of the bombed Church of St Benedict. Only the tower of the 11th century church survives today © Historic England Archive. BB84/00618 | Remains of St Benedict's on the National Heritage List for England
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