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:
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.
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- 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.
- 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.