The British had suffered only intermittent air raids since the last of the major raids on London in May 1941. Some of these produced considerable casualties, particularly on the east coast which was prone to hit and run raiders. However there had been no sustained campaign of raids. Now that the the RAF was beginning to demonstrate its increased power and range with an ever increasing complement of heavy bombers, there were demands for reprisal raids.
The destructive power of the raid on Lubeck had unnerved some senior Nazis and incensed Hitler. The firestorm had destroyed large parts of the medieval city. Now Hitler demanded that historic cities in Britain be targeted. The very first major raid on a provincial town in Britain in 1940 had ripped the heart out of medieval Coventry but that was also an industrial town and a centre of aircraft production.
Now cities were hit simply because they had noted historic buildings. The first raid came on the 23rd April with a relatively modest raid on Exeter. The following day German propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm claimed:
We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.
The Baedeker tourist guide was regarded as an authority on the architectural gems of Britain.
On the 25th it was the turn of the fine Georgian town Bath, in the first of three major attacks. The German propaganda machine ensured that the german population knew all about it:
Late in the evening of April 25th many German bombers took off and approached their target through banks of cloud. On the British coast the first searchlights flashed up. The Tommies don’t yet know where the bombers are heading, they think they are well protected in Bath. We roar down from the sky, now the first flares from our leaders light up the land like day! Beneath, the River Avon winds through the country like a silver thread. Here below us is the great loop in the middle of which lies the town, and now too the first small incendiaries go down.
Suddenly, in front of us a great towering flame appears which dazzles us with its flaming red, even in the cockpit! A huge cloud bursts up from below, sinisterly illuminated by the greedy, self-devouring flames. A gas-holder has exploded in the gas works. In a second the fire spreads and casts a flaming light over the city. We go down still lower, and beneath us we see rows of burning houses. Smoke rises from them and thickens into a black cloud which lies over the town like a pall. We can recognise the streets as well, fire and destruction are raging in them!
Our commander calmly searches for a new target. We fly over it, ‘bomb doors open, let go!’ Heavy bombs fall, then waiting – a strained pause. Once again there is a flash below, and where all had been dark before there is suddenly light, an unpleasant light for the English: annihilation! The bombs have exploded and met their target, fresh formations are coming up behind, and new explosions continually occur. One wave after another visits this town with death and destruction, this night of terror will go down in Bath’s history. The British Air Staff can judge for themselves regarding the German Air Force’s striking power in the West.
One German pilot, Willi Schludecker, was later to recall:
There were rumours that Churchill himself and high ranking marine planners from the Navy were in Bath. It was not just the Dornier DO.217 bombers from Kampfgeschwader II, that were ordered to attack, but also at least two other squadrons with Junkers Ju88 and Heinkel He111 were involved in the raids. My target was the city centre. I was not informed how Bath was protected.
I do not know the orders given to the other aircraft, only my own. For these raids the system of radio beams from Norway and France were not used to locate the target. Apart from the last raid where I had to turn back, I successfully arrived over Bath.
The Dornier 217 had a crew of four. We navigated our own zig zag route to avoid night fighters. During the flight, the gunner and the radio operator were ordered to lie on the floor, look down through the glass, and report any flash from the barrel of an ack-ack gun. If anything was spotted, I immediately changed the plane’s direction. There was a short time between seeing the flash and the shot reaching our flying height, and this method gave us the best chance of avoiding the flack.
I had no contact to the other bombers. During the flight we had to maintain radio silence, so all the aircraft were flying completely on their own, even though all had the same destination.
If two land stations a known distance apart identify the angle from which the radio transmission comes, then it is possible to plot on a map the location of each plane.
The only time the radio was used was when each plane was over its target and had dropped its bombs. Then they had to make just one radio transmission, which was to say: “Dropping at time xx:xx”, giving the exact time. With this one transmission on long range short-wave radio it was possible, by crosschecking the radio waves when the message was received, to verify that the plane had been over the target. I had not received any complaints for not having been over my targets, which confirmed that I had successfully navigated to Bath each time.
The Bath Blitz Memorial Project has much background material, many more accounts of witnesses to the raids and numerous photographs.