The Wail of Sirens, the Distant Throb of Engines: Norwich and the ‘Baedeker’ Raids

By far the most serious air raids on Norwich were the ‘Baedeker’ raids on the nights of 27/28 and 29/30 April 1942, exactly seventy-five years ago. There are several collections of archive material in the Record Office that relate to them. Books of photographs on the open shelves include one by F C Le Grice who sets the scene in fine prose:

A lovely night. The old City bathed in moonlight, looking peacefully beautiful from the heights in which George Borrow delighted. The ancient Cathedral lay in the foreground, clothed in the mystery which only Moon and purple skies can give. The historic old city, nestling in the quiet valley seemed almost dreamlike.

Suddenly the silence was broken by the wail of sirens, the distant throb of engines, the menacing roar of aircraft growing louder, and the night sky was illuminated with the red glare from floating chandeliers of coloured lights like giant fireworks hovering over the city.

Then all hell was let loose over a defenceless people, and Norwich was facing the ordeal of 1942.

These raids were in retaliation for R.A.F. raids on German civilian populations at Rostock and Lubeck. A German foreign office spokesman announced that the Luftwaffe would bomb every English building marked with three stars in the Baedeker guide book—the cities bombed were Bath, Exeter, Canterbury, Norwich and York. On the Monday night some 185 high-explosive bombs and a large number of incendiaries were dropped: 162 people killed and 600 wounded. After a respite on Tuesday night, the raids resumed on Wednesday night when 112 high-explosive bombs were dropped and even more incendiaries than on the Monday: 69 people killed and 89 admitted to hospital. About two thirds of those who died in air-raids in Norwich during the war were killed on these two nights, including eleven elderly people killed in a hit on Bowthorpe Lodge on 28 April.

Caley’s chocolate factory, St Benedict’s church, the Teacher Training College in College Road and Curl’s department store were among the buildings destroyed in the raids. Most of the dead were buried in the Earlham road cemetery.  A large number of grave spaces were prepared for the dead of future raids, but fortunately few of them were needed: Norwich never again experienced such devastation as on those two nights in late April 1942.

Official records of the raids include:

Fire service reports [C/F 7/1]

Reports of air raids, April 1942 [N/EN 1/81]

Reports from rescue units [N/EN 2/18, 19]

Card index of persons bombed out 1940-1943 [N/EN 1/200]

List of houses destroyed by enemy action 1942 [N/EN 2/27]

Particulars of air raid damage 1940-1944 [N/TC 57/36]

Many people will have heard of the well-known ‘Norwich Bomb Map’ kept by the Civil Defence Air Raid Precautions section of Norwich City Engineer’s Department. This comprises 25-inch OS maps mounted on a frame, with small tags attached with pins to mark the sites where bombs fell, their size and date.  Many of the tags are, of course, recording bombs that fell in the Baedeker raids

Many of these records have the prefix N/EN meaning they came from the City Engineer’s Department: the records of this department also include files on precautions, air raid shelters and related topics, and so are an excellent place to begin research into those – now almost unbelievable – events of seventy five years ago.

Just as important as official records are personal experiences.

Compiled by Frank Meeres, Archivist at Norfolk Record Office

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