The Exeter Blitz
.The On 26th February 2021 builders discovered a huge unexploded Second World War bomb in Glenthorne Road, Exeter. It caused mass disruption and evacuations of local residents. As the emergency services, local authorities and military personnel sprang into action to make the bomb safe, I found myself thinking about the events which led to this bomb lying hidden for almost eighty years.
When we think of the ‘Blitz’ it immediately brings to mind the devastating campaign of attacks on London in the autumn of 1940. However in 1942, Britain suffered another string of less well known attacks.
The ‘Baedeker Blitz’
In March 1942 the RAF bombed the historic German city of Lubeck. German forces retaliated with raids on English cities known as ‘Baedeker Blitz’. The name results from the popular series of German tourist guidebooks the Luftwaffe used to identify targets for bombing. Between April and May 1942 raids targeted Exeter, Norwich, York, Canterbury and Bath. They chose these cities for their historic and cultural significance, rather than any military or strategic importance. The Luftwaffe attacked Exeter three times. First on 23 April, next in the early hours of the 25 April and the main raid on the 4th May.
Earlier Exeter Blitz bombings
The spring of 1942 was not the first time the Luftwaffe had dropped bombs on Exeter. Throughout the previous eighteen months the city had suffered isolated attacks. These were probably from individual bombers on their way home from targeting more strategic British cities. On a previous occasion in August 1940, five bombs fell on the St Thomas’ area of the city. But they caused little damage. The Express and Echo newspaper reported, ‘the only casualties were a middle aged man who was able to walk to a first aid post, a canary which died from shock and a few chickens.’ Compared to other cities in 1940, Exeter got off relatively lightly. The bombing raids of April and May 1942, would prove to be far more catastrophic than anything the city had previously experienced.
The initial attack on Exeter on the evening of the 23 April mainly targeted St Thomas and Marsh Barton, there was some damage to properties and four fatalities. The bombers returned the following night a few minutes after midnight. They dropped large numbers of incendiary bombs as well as high explosive bombs over the city causing widespread damage. 73 people died, while a further 20 were injured.
The Luftwaffe targeted Exeter for the third and final time on the 4 May. Air raid sirens sounded just after 1.30am, when many residents would have trooped out to the garden to take cover in their Anderson Shelters. Others would have retreated to their Morrison Shelter – essentially a cage which would offer some protection if the house was hit by a bomb.
The first bombs fell on Newtown. Over the next 90 minutes 75 tonnes of high explosive bombs and over 10,000 incendiary bombs dropped on the city. Huge fires broke out in the High Street, Sidwell Street and Fore Street. The flames quickly spread from building to building. Bombs hit the Telephone Exchange and Gas Works. This made communication difficult and hindered rescue efforts. Also a direct hit destroyed a fire fighting barge on the River Exe.
The fires continued to spread into the following day. They destroyed much of the historic city centre and damaged the surviving buildings. Churches, schools, municipal buildings and people’s homes were all destroyed. The city’s library burnt to the ground, with the loss of thousands of irreplaceable books and documents. 156 people died, while nearly 600 were injured. The final resting place for many casualties was a mass grave in Higher Cemetery.
Some families lost everything when their homes burned. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to the city in the weeks that followed, to try and raise spirits and boost morale. It took years for the city centre to fully recover and be rebuilt.
In the aftermath of the detonation of the Glenthorne Road bomb, many 21st century residents of Exeter remarked on how unexpectedly loud the explosion was. It’s hard to imagine the terror that must be been felt when hundreds of these bombs began falling from the sky.
Here at RAMM we have a number of objects associated with the Exeter Blitz in our collections. You can see some of them in the Making History Gallery.