Post-blogging the Baedeker Blitz: conclusion

So in case it isn't obvious by now, my most recent bout of post-blogging covered the period of the Baedeker Blitz, a series of Luftwaffe raids against English cities (unlike in the Blitz proper, there were no targets in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) between 23 April and 3 May 1942. The individual blitzes were:

23 April: Exeter
24 April: Exeter
25 April: Bath
26 April: Bath
27 April: Norwich
29 April: Norwich and York
3 May: Exeter

These were reprisals in return for RAF raids on Lübeck and later also Rostock. (There was a second phase from 31 May to 6 June 1942, three raids on Canterbury in response to the thousand bomber raid on Cologne, which I might or might not get around to doing in a few weeks' time.) In addition, there were smaller snap raids by fighter-bombers nipping across the Channel, though these don't seem to have been considered part of the Baedeker raids by the press.

The reason they were called Baedeker raids is that, for a time at least, German propaganda openly acknowledged that the Luftwaffe was choosing its targets for their cultural value (supposedly from the German Baedeker travel guides), not because they were in any sense legitimate military or industrial objectives: that is, their declared purpose was revenge and terror.1 None of the cities today has a population above 200,000, so they were more Coventrys than Guernicas or Londons: important provincial centres, neither giant metropolises or small towns. And like Coventry, they all possessed beautiful old buildings: especially the cathedrals of Exeter, York and Norwich, and the Roman baths and Georgian architecture of Bath. Unlike Coventry, however, the most precious ancient monuments were largely spared destruction (as I can attest from my own visits to York and Exeter). The losses were still grievous, of course: the chapel of St James at Exeter; York's Guildhall; the Assembly Rooms in Bath. But most of the physical damage was caused to the less aesthetically pleasing (though more useful) commercial and residential districts, and to humans: more than 1600 people were killed in total, at least 400 of them in Bath alone, and 50,000 houses destroyed. Britain's civil defence apparatus had been overhauled since the Blitz just under a year earlier, especially the fire services which were now organised nationally, and this was their first test. On the whole they seem to have performed very well, though by the end of the Baedeker raids there was some criticism of post-raid welfare services in Exeter. Whatever propaganda value the raids may have had in Germany itself, they did nothing to stop Bomber Command's attempts to burn out German cities, regardless of their historical interest.

So what have I learned, if anything, from this exercise? The most interesting aspect for me was not the German raids on Britain but the British raids on Germany. These featured prominently in the press during the Blitz too, but there are differences now. The intensity and scale of attack now possible appears to have increased since the spring of 1941: there was nothing like the four consecutive nights of attacks on Rostock then. True, back in the Blitz period, Bomber Command was also making claims for heavy damage to German cities, but now the evidence it can provide is more specific and, at least superficially, more compelling: photographs of roofless buildings taken by RAF aircraft, stories of crowds of refugees sourced from German press and radio. The Air Ministry and the Ministry of Information seem to have worked out how to keep Bomber Command's activities in the public eye, even when it wasn't doing anything spectacular. First there comes news of the raid itself, often with aircrew testimony as to its effectiveness; then a few days later, there are reports based on post-raid reconnaissance which reinforce the message that heavy damage was done; then weeks afterward there are medal investiture ceremonies at the Palace, perhaps with more firsthand accounts from the raid's heroes. And these stages in the raid news cycle overlap and reinforce each other: in the period I've looked at here, there were first reports of raids on Rostock, Cologne, Kiel, Trondheim, Paris, and Hamburg (as well as Fighter and Coastal Command attacks on targets in northern France and in Norway); reconnaissance reports on the results of the Lübeck and Rostock raids; a swag of medals for the men of the daring low-level Augsburg, raid. In this way, no reader could doubt that Bomber Command was hitting Germany hard and doing so almost nightly.

And that was still true, despite the widening of the war since May 1941. I found these posts much harder to write than the ones during the Blitz, because there's so much more going on. Back then the Blitz itself was the biggest thing going, with only occasional diversions provided by invasions of Dakar or news from the United States. Since then, Germany has invaded Russia (never the Soviet Union) and Japan has attacked and mostly conquered British, American and Dutch possessions in south-east Asia and the Pacific. There's simply a lot more war going on now and it's hard to cover everything, even if in this particular period only Burma is seeing much ground combat. (Which helps explain why it is getting so many headlines, despite its later and current perception as a 'forgotten war'.) The battles at the front intersect with the political infighting behind the lines too, which gives complex but previously obscure (at least for British readers and for me) issues sudden importance. The failure of Sir Stafford Cripps' mission to India, for example, was something I almost completely failed to mention, despite the issue of Indian independence being discussed almost every day (by the 'quality' newspapers anyway); and this problem was clearly lent greater urgency by the approach of Japanese armies to the gates of Bengal.

The situation in Russia is even more critical, even though it is currently static as both armies await the end of General Mud. There's a widespread perception evident in the press that Russia is the decisive front of the war and 1942 the decisive year. If Stalin's armies can hold out, then that should be enough to ensure eventual victory for the Allies by giving time for both the Russian and American juggernauts to get up to speed. If, on the other hand, Russia is conquered or negotiates a separate peace, then Germany can devote all its resources to defending Europe against Britain and America. These potential consequences rarely seem to be voiced so directly. The urgency shows in the repeated references to a second front: demands that Britain open a second front by landing on the Continent; hopes that it was preparing the way for a second front through bomber and commando raids, tying down German forces which could be used against Russia; claims that it was already effectively fighting a second front by bombing and destroying Germany's warfighting capacity. Here again the RAF is to the fore. Not only is it the only service striking back at the enemy on a large scale, it's the only one which hasn't failed spectacularly since the end of the Blitz (with the possible exception of the Channel Dash) -- think the fall of Crete, the loss of the mighty Hood, Rommel's victories, the loss of Force Z, the fall of Singapore, now the retreat from Burma. This point of the war was near to Britain's nadir (which perhaps helps explain the invasion plays and mock fifth columnists) and even with the recognition that a landing on the Continent was probably going to be required, Bomber Command was currently the best weapon it had and the only way it could help relieve Russia's burden of the fighting.

And what of the Baedeker raids themselves? How did the press treat them? It's interesting that they were never considered the most important news of the day by any of the newspapers I've been using (The Times, Manchester Guardian, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Yorkshire Post and the Observer). It's not that they didn't devote space to it -- sometimes the coverage was quite substantial -- it's just that there was always something more important. That wasn't the case during the Blitz (though that wasn't always the top story either). It could be that this reflects a London bias, but even the Yorkshire Post gave the impending fall of Lashio precedence over the York blitz. While leader writers and air correspondents did discuss the return of German bombing, and sometimes predicted (wrongly, as we now know) that it was something people would have to get used to again, there's no sense at all that this is really a big deal. The destruction is lamentable and lamented, of course, but it's not on the scale of the Blitz and both people and civil defence appear to be taking it (mostly). That the Luftwaffe has resorted to mere reprisals, instead of a considered strategy, is taken rather as a sign that Bomber Command is doing its job and should continue to do so. Similarly, unlike the Blitz there is little or no published correspondence from readers demanding reprisal bombing against German civilians. That could be for a number of reasons: there are fewer or no letters being printed in each newspaper anyway, probably due to restricted newsprint allowances (the poor old Express is down to just four pages), and these things fluctuate for reasons that are not obvious (it could be that a debate flared up the day after I stopped post-blogging). But I would guess there is no demand for reprisals because at this point in time what Bomber Command is doing looks very like reprisal bombing anyway. Compare Rostock and York, with roughly the same population. However much York suffered it was not enough to cause the evacuation of most of the population, which is what happened to Rostock.2 People could afford to be so relaxed about the Baedeker blitz because Britain was winning the bomber war.


  1. Possibly a bit of an own goal; I forgot to note this in my posts but after the last Exeter raid the Germans were describing it as a 'harbour town' and 'important traffic junction'; The Times, 5 May 1942, 5. 

  2. Interestingly, the British press at the time only claimed that most of the city's 116,000 people were evacuated by the government, though sometimes headlines hinted that they were panicked; but Jörg Friedrich says that '150,000 people fled wildly': Jörg Friedrich, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2006), 158. 

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8 thoughts on “Post-blogging the Baedeker Blitz: conclusion

  1. Very interesting process Brett.

    I noted we were distracted by the ‘noise’ of other wartime events to a degree. I wonder if that happened if you lived in a bombed city?

    My other immediate feeling reading the summaries was wondering what people really thought about the hypocrisy being offered with the ‘we bomb their factories, they bomb our hospitals / cathedrals etc.’ line*

    The lack of letters (“Dog in the night time”) is interesting, I think, but what can one make of that?

    Given the letters point, and the overseas news-inches, perhaps the new round of bombing almost became part of the overall noise of the war, and people were, partly perhaps, habituated?

    On the post-blogging experiment, would you recommend it? Do you think the insights you got (above, and any others?) have research broadening and understanding merit or are worth the workload for academic or general research work?

    [*Obviously variable, but it was evident we dun all good things (accurately) they dun all bad things (and inaccurately) all the time - anyone with military experience or some degree of foreign relations experience would be aware that life isn't so simple.]

  2. Post author

    I noted we were distracted by the ‘noise’ of other wartime events to a degree. I wonder if that happened if you lived in a bombed city?

    Probably not! But then — not to diminish the suffering — there weren’t many people in the bombed cities, half a million at a guess? So relatively few were directly affected like that. And the attacks weren’t on the Blitz scale either. People probably felt excited to be in the action as much as scared or depressed.

    My other immediate feeling reading the summaries was wondering what people really thought about the hypocrisy being offered with the ‘we bomb their factories, they bomb our hospitals / cathedrals etc.’ line*

    Yes, I wonder too. But in this period it was somewhat obscured by the fact that Germany was openly boasting of attacking cathedrals. Not very smart of Goebbels.

    The lack of letters (“Dog in the night time”) is interesting, I think, but what can one make of that?

    Not too much, I don’t think, over such a short period and with a restricted set of sources.

    Given the letters point, and the overseas news-inches, perhaps the new round of bombing almost became part of the overall noise of the war, and people were, partly perhaps, habituated?

    It could well be. But naively one might have expected (I half did, anyway) that the absence of major air raids for nearly a year following on a string of British military disasters and two-and-a-half years of war-weariness that the reaction might have been ‘Really? This again? When do things start getting better and not worse?’ The evidence here suggests this didn’t happen but as I say we shouldn’t read too much into that.

    On the post-blogging experiment, would you recommend it? Do you think the insights you got (above, and any others?) have research broadening and understanding merit or are worth the workload for academic or general research work?

    Hmm, good question. It’s certainly valuable to research and write, I don’t know how valuable it is to read! That is to say, consuming a bunch of primary sources in and for such a concentrated period gives me a much better understanding of what the press preoccupations of the time were, but this time around there was so much I couldn’t/didn’t write about that I don’t think I really did the exercise justice. That might be because of the sheer volume of stuff to write about, but also maybe because the Baedeker raids were not actually the dominant thread in the press (as the Sudeten crisis and the Blitz were). Which itself is instructive: I’d never paid the Lübeck and Rostock raids much attention, but at this time and place they were huge news.

    As to whether it’s worth the workload, I really don’t know! They are very time-consuming. But I hope to do more in the future…

  3. When you get to dealing with Canterbury you might be interested in seeing the Powell & Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale, if you haven’t already. (I checked to see if you have referred to it before, and people have mentioned it in comments at any rate). It has a mildly otherworldly and long-history take on Englishness and the war; seen as a classic now, it was unsuccessful at release and Powell in his autobiography is a bit dismissive of it.

    Most of it takes place in a small village, but by the end the characters get to Canterbury proper and you get some shots in the city, which is both bombed-out (in places) and fairly busy. The whole film is on youTube here and you get some good shots of holes in the ground allowing “a very good view of the cathedral now” in the sequence from about 1:44:00, with land girl Sheila Sim striding about (and also around 1:34:00, when they come in by train).

    It was filmed in the summer and autumn of 1943 so it’s largely fresh with real production values, so to speak, not post-war recreation. Having said that, relevant interior shots in the cathedral were done in the studio, as the stained-glass windows had been taken away and the gaps boarded up. (Sheila Sim married Richard Attenborough about 18 months later, btw, and they’re still married.)

    Apart from the bombing, there’s not much airmindedness in the film, though a mediaeval bird of prey jumpcuts 600 years into a Spitfire at 03:40:00.

    P&P, of course, are the creators of A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. No air connection, but there’s a new restoration of Blimp and I heard in a trail that on BBC Radio 4′s Film Programme this coming Thursday they’ll be discussing it with Pressburger’s nephew Kevin “Touching The Void” MacDonald, fan Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, movie editor and Powell’s widow. Listen Again after the show at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006r5jt

  4. Post author

    Do you know, I’m sure I must have seen A Canterbury Tale at some point but I don’t remember anything about it! Probably late at night when I was writing and not paying attention. So thanks for the link. I have at last seen A Matter of Life and Death and must track down One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing one day… certainly they were master filmmakers.

    Re: Richard Attenborough. I was changing channels the other day and a 50s movie came on. A man was lying in bed, his face away from the camera. He groaned and I instantly thought ‘That sounds like Richard Attenborough’ and it was! Hard to think of a use for this ability but I’ll keep it in reserve. #humblebrag

  5. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had its genesis in a dropped subplot of One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing (or OOOAIM). P&P apparently planned to have the old air gunner (Godfrey Tearle, in his late 50s) explaining to the young whippersnappers of the crew how he had got to where he was now. Their editor, the later-famous David Lean, persuaded them that there was an entire movie in that story.

    OOOAIM is also the first film of Peter Ustinov, who spoke Dutch, Latin and English in it. Also in it was Alec Clunes, father of big-eared Martin Clunes of Doc Martin and Men Behaving Badly, if you’ve come across them. It’s a kind of reverse 49th Parallel; in that, a stranded German crew tries to make its way across Canada, with various adventures. As in other P&P films, one or two of the Germans were good Germans, at least relatively.

    A Matter of Life and Death is personally my favourite film (of all time, not just P&P films). Richard Attenborough gets a short shot in that, as the airman up top who thinks he might be in heaven.

    Some of A Canterbury Tale seems to belong to a very distant time, especially the farm stuff (and deliberately so, despite the Spitfire), yet my mother, who is still alive, was a Kent farmer’s daughter aged about 16 and living about 20 miles from the locations of the film. Despite that connection, I had sort of assumed all the grownups in it had died by the time I saw it on the big screen for the first time in Bristol in 2005, so I was surprised to realise that Sheila Sim had been in the news not long before – one of her daughters and a granddaughter had been killed in the Boxing Day Indisn Ocean tsunami.

  6. Post author

    49th Parallel is probably the British wartime film I’ve seen the most — it used to get a regular late night showing on the ABC here. So much so I wished they’d stop it and show something else instead!

  7. Post author

    So unfortunately I definitely don’t have time to post-blog the second phase of the Baedeker Blitz. What I might do at some point in future is do a post on just the press coverage of Operation Millennium (the thousand-bomber raid, 31 May 1942) and the following Baedeker raids on Canterbury, without going into depth or spending much time on what else was happening in the war.

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