Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Baedeker Raids: Why Exeter was Targeted

The photograph above shows the ancient Hanseatic port of Lübeck in Germany as a smouldering ruin the day after it was destroyed by RAF Bomber Command in the early hours of 29 March 1942, and the history books tell us that the Baedeker Raids began here.

The material damage to the German city was enormous. The medieval cathedral and the church of St Mary were totally destroyed along with nearly 1500 houses, many dating back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and another 2000 were severely damaged. The raid on Lübeck is often cited as being the consequence of a development in RAF Bomber Command which regarded the morale of the enemy population as being a target in its own right. The head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, later stated that "Lübeck went up in flames [because] it was a city of moderate size of some importance as a port, and with some submarine building yards of moderate size not far from it. It was not a vital target, but it seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city".

Whatever the ethical justification of the bombing of Lübeck, a subject which strays well beyond the subject of ths post, the consequences for English cities were obvious. Hitler appears to have been incensed with the destruction of what was a relatively undefended city of immense architectural importance and ordered retaliatory attacks on industrially unimportant but culturally valuable cities in England. The name of these attacks supposedly derives from a statement made by Nazi propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm, who said that the Luftwaffe would work its way through the Baedeker Guide to England, destroying those cities of rich cultural significance or picturesque charm with buildings that received Baedeker's highest three-star rating.

Initially only four cities were selected. Exeter was the first city targeted, on 23/24 April 1942, a raid which did relatively little material damage. This was followed by raids on Bath, Norwich and York before the Luftwaffe returned to Exeter in the early hours of 4 May 1942 and destroyed nearly 40 acres of the city. Canterbury was bombed at the beginning of June, probably in retaliation for the destruction of Cologne at the end of May 1942.

Over 1600 civilians were killed in total and, outside of Exeter, some significant historical buildings and streets were damaged or destroyed e.g. the medieval Guildhall in York and the 18th century Assembly Rooms in Bath, as well as Bath's Royal Crescent and the medieval St Augustine's Gate at Canterbury (shown above left and restored after the war). But the structural damage to Exeter was immense, partly because of the compact nature of its city centre, with most of its historic core laid out along a central street running through the city, and partly because much of the city was still built of wood. Unlike Bath, much of which was restored back to its pre-war condition, the local authority in Exeter made no such effort and nearly everything damaged in 1942 was demolished in its entirety, irrespective of its historical and/or aesthetic value. In each of the Baedeker target cities the most significant targets, the abbey at Bath, the cathedrals at Exeter, Norwich and Canterbury, and the minster at York all survived relatively unscathed.



JP said...

Full of info which helped settle an argument.

wolfpaw said...

I'm glad it helped, but what was the argument? :)

Anonymous said...

Coventry 1940 .. so where does that take us ?

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