The Exeter Blitz
The discovery of a huge unexploded Second World War bomb in Glenthorne Road, Exeter on 26th February 2021 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 was hit by another string of less well known attacks.
The ‘Baedeker Blitz’
Known as the ‘Baedeker Blitz’, after a popular series of German tourist guidebooks which the Luftwaffe used to identify targets for bombing; the raids were devised as retaliation for the March 1942 RAF bombing of the historic German city of Lubeck. Between April and May 1942 raids targeted Exeter, Norwich, York, Canterbury and Bath, all cities chosen for their historic and cultural significance rather than any military or strategic importance. Exeter was attacked three times, on the 23rd April, in the early hours of the 25th April and the main raid on the 4th May.
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, 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 caused little damage. With the Express and Echo newspaper reporting that 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, but compared to other cities targeted in 1940, Exeter had 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 23rd 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.
Exeter was targeted for the third final time on the 4th 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, while 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 and over the next 90 minutes 75 tonnes of high explosive bombs and over 10,000 incendiary bombs would be dropped on the city. Huge fires had broken out in the High Street. Sidwell Street and Fore Street, with the flames quickly spreading from building to building. Rescue efforts were hindered by the Telephone Exchange and Gas Works being bombed making communication difficult, and a fire fighting barge on the River Exe being destroyed by a direct hit.
The fires continued to spread into the following day, destroying much of the historic city centre and damaging the surviving buildings. Churches, schools, municipal buildings and people’s homes were all destroyed. The city’s library was burnt to the ground, with the loss of thousands of irreplaceable books and documents. 156 people were killed, while nearly 600 were injured. The final resting place for many casualties was a mass grave in Higher Cemetery.
Some families had 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 would take 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.