Monthly Archives: March 2017

Hitler’s guidebook – The Baedeker Raids

Have you ever used a Baedeker Guidebook when on holiday? The first of these travel guides was published in the 1820’s and were a ‘must have’ for travellers. But did you know that there was a series of air raids on England during the Second World War which got their name from these guidebooks? So why did the Germans use these books to target historic towns and cities in Britain during the spring of 1942?


The intensive bombing of the German blitz ended in May 1941 when Hitler re-targeted his resources on his invasion of Russia; this meant that attacks on Britain were confined to hit-and-run raids on coastal towns. At the same time night bombing by the RAF was being scaled down as it was felt that the type of raids which targeted individual factories or military bases were ineffective. It was not until March 1942 that the RAF resumed their raids with new heavy bombers, improved navigation, new tactics, and a new commander, all of which helped to make these attacks much more devastating than those carried out earlier in the war. Instead of the previous attempts at precision bombing of factories and power stations the focus was now on area bombing. Planes would target a single area where there was not only the possibility of destroying military targets and factories but also affecting the morale of the civilian population. On 28th March 1942 the RAF bombed the city of Lűbeck in northern Germany. The historic centre of the city, known as the ‘Old Town’, consisted mostly of wooden buildings and was almost totally destroyed; over 1,000 people were killed.

Mass grave for the victims of the bombing of Lubeck
Mass grave for the victims of the bombing of Lubeck

Nearby Rostock was bombed a month after the destruction of Lübeck. The two attacks shocked the Nazi leadership, and also the civilian population of Germany who had suffered little under previous RAF raids. The change of British tactics was very effective; Goebbels said that “the damage was really enormous” and “it is horrible… the English air raids have increased in scope and importance; if they can be continued for weeks on these lines, they might conceivably have a demoralizing effect on the population.” He described the raid on Rostock as more devastating than those before, saying “Community life there is practically at an end… the situation is in some sections catastrophic… seven tenths of the city have been destroyed… more than 100,000 people had to be evacuated… there was, in fact, panic.” Hitler was furious and determined that the Luftwaffe would retaliate in kind. On 14th April he ordered that “the air war against England be given a more aggressive stamp. Accordingly when targets are being selected, preference is to be given to those where attacks are likely to have the greatest possible effect on civilian life. Besides raids on ports and industry, terror attacks of a retaliatory nature are to be carried out on towns other than London.” Hitler’s aim was twofold, as well as revenge for the RAF raids he hoped that such attacks would break the morale of the British people and lead to a swifter end to the war.

Exeter after the bombing
Exeter after the bombing

The first retaliatory raid took place on Exeter on 23rd April. Much of the city was damaged and around 80 people were killed and 55 wounded. The next day Baron von Sturm (a spokesman for the German Foreign Office) said “’We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” von Strum’s comments led to the raids being called the ‘Baedeker Raids’ by both the Germans and the Allies. Although Goebbels agreed with the tactic he was furious with von Strum for his thoughtless, off-the-cuff comment. Goebbels  had wanted to take the moral high ground, describing the British attacks as ‘terror bombing’, but now von Strum had effectively admitted that the Germans were deliberately targeting cultural and historical sites. Exeter was bombed again within hours of von  Strum’s statement. A third raid on Exeter took place on 3rd May when high explosives, incendiaries and parachute mines were dropped by 90 planes, devastating the city’s shopping centre. 163 people were killed and 131 seriously injured in the attacks on the town which was poorly prepared for such raids, as were the other locations chosen from the guidebook. (Intersetingly, Hitler forbade any bombing of the beautiful Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire as it was the place where Churchill had been born; Hitler was determined to live  there after he had invaded and subdued the UK).

Goebbels in 1942
Goebbels in 1942

Each of the Baedeker raids involved between 30 and 40 bombers which flew two sorties each night. This meant that each raid would begin with a period of bombing lasting one and a half to two hours. There would then be a lull of two to three hours while the Germans returned to base to re-arm and re-fuel. Finally, another bombing run like the first.

Exeter was not the only city to be targeted. 400 people were killed in raids on Bath on two consecutive nights (25th + 26th April), during the raid the railway station was put out of action and communications severely affected. After the raids on Bath Goebbels reported that Hitler intended to “repeat these raids night after night until the English are sick and tired of terror attacks” and that he “shared [Goebbels’] opinion absolutely that cultural centres, health resorts and civilian centres must be attacked… there is no other way of bringing the English to their senses. They belong to a class of human beings with whom you can only talk after you have first knocked out their teeth.”

Bath after the raid
Bath after the raid

The 27th of April saw 90 tons of bombs dropped on Norwich; the city was attacked again on the 29th. In all, 222 people died during these raids on Norwich. It was the turn of York on 28th April when high explosive bombs and incendiaries caused a huge amount of damage, including the destruction of the medieval Guildhall. In May there were more raids on Cowes, Norwich, Hull, Poole, Grimsby and Canterbury. The RAF responded by sending 1,000 bombers in a massive raid on Cologne.

The German raids on historic cities in England during April and May 1942 were responsible for 1,637 civilian deaths and left another 1,760 injured. Over 50,000 homes were destroyed along with some important buildings such as the Bath Assembly Rooms and the Guildhall in York. But the raids did not cause as much damage as Hitler had hoped, and rather than breaking the morale of the British people it strengthened their resolve to defeat the enemy at all costs. German bomber losses were high and this, coupled with the need for Hitler to reinforce his troops in North Africa and Russia, resulted in a scaling back of attacks to hit-and-run raids on the coast. The Luftwaffe did occasionally raid towns and cities of historic and cultural importance in the months that followed (Ipswich, Poole, Norwich, Bristol, Swansea and Colchester), but these raids were much smaller (about 20 aircraft instead of 40+) and the damage was more limited; even so, by the end of the year over 3,230 people had been killed and 4,150 injured in German air raids on Britain. There were some attacks on towns of no military or strategic value in 1943, but by 1944 the Germans gave up their ‘Baedeker Raids’ as they were ineffective and the losses to the Luftwaffe were unsustainable. London once again became the target, along with the ports which Hitler believed would be used for the Allied invasion of Europe.


In my novel, Heronfield, Bath holds a special significance for two of the main characters, and it is through the eyes of Sarah that we see the significance of the bombings, and the resilience of the civilians whose resolve was strengthened rather than broken by the Baedeker Raids.


Grayling, A. C.  Among the dead cities

Price, A. Blitz on Britain 1939–1945

Terraine, John The Right of the Line

Recommended read – ‘A Town Like Alice’ by Nevil Shute


Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.

‘A Town Like Alice’ is a classic which loses none of its appeal with the passage of time. The description of life for the English women and children who are unwanted prisoners of the Japanese, forced to march for months on end by Japanese officers who refuse to take responsibility for them, is harrowing. You would be forgiven for saying that something as inhumane as that could never have happened – but it did, though in Sumatra not Malaya. Mr Shute met with one of those women after the war, and this novel is a tribute to her strength and endurance and that of those who were held with her, and those who died during their long captivity.

You may also be forgiven for thinking that the story must be depressing, it is not. This is a novel of hope not despair. Mr Shute uses his characters to show us the good in humanity, the willingness to help others despite personal cost – Joe, the Australian soldier, who stole to feed the women, with tragic consequences; Jean’s struggles as she tries to cope with the ‘normality’ of England after the war, unable to begin life again because of a burden of guilt she carries from her time as a prisoner; the kindness and support show to Jean by her solicitor, Noel. Mr Shute skilfully weaves a believable plotline which takes Jean back to Malaya and on to Australia, searching for answers and for a purpose in life. Can she re-build her life in a new country in ‘a town like Alice (Springs)’ which Joe told her so much about?

This is a well-researched and well written novel in which Mr Shute immerses the reader in life in three very different locations – war-torn Malaya, bombed out London and the developing outback – with the effortlessness of a master wordsmith. This is a story of ordinary people with an extraordinary tale to tell; a timeless tale of love and loss, of romance and redemption. ‘A Town Like Alice’ is one of the books I’ve read more than once and always enjoy coming back to. If you have never read this modern classic you really must give it a go.

‘A Town Like Alice’ can be purchased from Amazon

You can find out about more about the life and work of Nevil Shute at the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Call the midwife?- pregnacy and childbirth in the 17th century

Did women receive antenatal care during the 17th century? And if so, were men involved? These are questions I have been asked by people who have read my recent novel, The Cavalier Historian. It is a fascinating topic, and one which may cause you a few surprises!

Before the 17th century pregnancy and childbirth were the exclusive domain of women with male doctors only occasionally being called in to help with difficult deliveries. During the mid-17th century, however, some doctors began to take a more active role in childbirth although this was limited to the process of delivery with no real attempts at gynaecological surgery. It was not until the beginning of the 1700’s (50 years after the setting in my book) that forceps were introduced and, as the use of anything mechanical was seen as unsuitable for women, ‘man midwives’ began to appear. Initially they were called in to help with difficult deliveries, but by 1720 ‘man midwives’ and doctors were beginning to attend normal deliveries.1

Childbirth was a dangerous event during the 16th and 17th centuries and in Britain at that time the chances of a woman dying were about one in forty. In some countries, such as France, it was even higher. But, as Benjamin Roberts explains in his book Through the Keyhole: Dutch Child-rearing Practices in the 17th and 18th century, that does not mean that there was no antenatal care. As you would expect, there was a great difference in the experience of women depending on such factors as wealth and poverty, rural or urban residence, and the family being ‘enlightened’ or ‘unenlightened’. Care in pregnancy had certainly been a focus for some doctors in Germany as early as the period of the Reformation where male doctors were publishing books on the subject well before the civil war broke out in England. In 1513, for example, the German physician Eucharius Rosselin first published Rosengarten (The Rose Garden), which became the standard text for the more educated midwives who were able to read. Rosselin worked for Katherine, the wife of Henry IV, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg, who wanted him to supervise the midwives in the city of Worms. His work led him to the conclusion that the high mortality rate in childbirth was due in no small part to careless and substandard work by midwives; his book was written to counter this. Rosengarten was an over-night success, and not just in Germany – by the mid-16th century it had been translated into all the major European languages with the English translation, The Birth of Mankind’ being published in 1540.

In addition to Rosselin the Lutheran preacher Johannes Coler was also publishing about pregnancy and childbirth. His work, Haussbuch, was published in six parts between 1591 and 1605. For Coler, the focus was on providing useful guidance for both mothers and fathers during pregnancy whilst Rosselin was more concerned with the final stages of pregnancy as well as with childbirth itself. Both authors offered advice on good diet for the pregnant woman.

For me, the most interesting book by an English author is ‘Observations in Midwifery’ by Percival Willughby, a doctor who wanted to improve the standards of midwifery and so save lives. In his book Willughby records the details of almost two hundred births he attended and where he criticises the ignorance and superstitious practices of many midwives (including placing the placenta on the baby’s head to prevent sore eyes). Willughby also describes situations where the death of a child, and maybe the mother as well, was as a direct result of the ignorance of the midwife. The first birth that Willughby wrote about could have resulted in such a disaster without his intervention. The incident took place in 1630 when he was asked by a country gentleman in Derbyshire to visit his wife. The local midwife apparently believed that the woman was already in labour and was trying to force the birth of the child. Willughby found that the woman’s waters had not yet broken so he gave her a calming drink (milk, camomile, sugar and egg yolk) to help her sleep. The pregnancy continued without further upset and the baby was born a month later.

Dr Willughby was definitely ahead of his time in the care of women during pregnancy, and also in improved care during childbirth. For some unknown reason ‘Observations in Midwifery’ was not published until after Willughby’s death when a number of hand-written copies were made, but the book was not actually published until 1863. There are two known hand-written copies still in existence, one of which is held by the Royal Society of Medicine, London.

Willughby was not unique amongst English doctors of that time for in his book he records a conversation which he had in 1642 with a Dr Harvey, a conversation in which they shared information about pregnancy and childbirth. So, to answer those questions about The Cavalier Historian: it was not the norm for women to receive antenatal care during pregnancy at the time of the English Civil War, but for a noble woman it would not have been unheard of. I like to imagine that the doctor in my book may have come into contact with Willughby or with the books of Rosselin and Coler, and that these had informed his care of a pregnant woman; and he would most certainly have been called in to assist with a difficult delivery when things went wrong.

In conclusion, pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous times for a woman in the 17th century. Ignorance and superstition were rife amongst the poor uneducated midwives, but if one were wealthy enough and of a high enough social standing it might have been possible to receive more enlightened antenatal care. Those women were the lucky ones.

References:  1 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists;    Through the Keyhole: Dutch Child-rearing Practices in the 17th and 18th century by Benjamin Roberts

Observations in Midwifery by Percival Willughby