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.
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.
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).
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.”
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