‘Exeter was a jewel – we have destroyed it’

The shattered city of Exeter lies smoking on the morning after, although the cathedral was spared.

The Baedeker raids had started with a relatively modest raid on Exeter on 23rd April. They had subsequently hit Norwich and Bath as well as other cities. Now they returned to Exeter, at the time one of the finest historic cities in England:

The city had an 11th century castle; a medieval Guildhall; the finest Decorated Gothic cathedral in England; beautiful terraces of late-18th century and Regency domestic architecture; a large number of surviving medieval and post-medieval stone and timber-framed housing, including almshouses, churches, townhouses and inns, a number of which contained interiors of great historical and aesthetic value; there were 19th century public buildings, including two important neo-Classical market halls and a neo-Gothic museum; and a city wall which encircled Exeter almost completely.

In 1942 the city was a product of nearly 2000 years of urban evolution, much of its street plan dating back either to the Romans or the late-Saxons, a maze of alleyways, lanes and courts, all densely filled with buildings that were completely unique to the city.

Read much more about Exeter – and its destruction – on the blog Demolition Exeter.

Brian Pollard was eighteen at the time, living with his parents and awaiting call up to the Fleet Air Arm. He had dealt with incendiary bombs on the roof of the town council during the first raid on 23rd April but this raid was very much worse.

We were asleep and were not greatly concerned to be woken by the air raid siren again, as we had a reinforced room in the basement. Hearing the sound of explosions we thought it wise to dress and go there; but we did not get that far. The explosions seemed to come very near and we had a shower of incendiary bombs.

The latter were 12 to 15 inches long and 2 or 3 inches in diameter. They contained magnesium and, on contact, burned white hot and spat burning fragments. Two such bombs came through the windows of the first floor front bedroom, already shattered by the explosions. We tried dousing with water but the furnishings were soon blazing. I discovered that more incendiary bombs had come through the roof and the attic was well alight and also the buildings opposite and adjacent. There was nothing for it but to leave.

No matter how good the intentions one is never properly alert when the time comes. There were many small valuable things we could have taken with us but our only thoughts were to guard our lives. The nearest public air raid shelter was in Sidwell Street about five hundred yards away. It was hazardous and not without incident but by helping each other we reached the shelter as did many others. Sidwell Street is a wide thoroughfare. There was enough room to construct on the centre line two brick and concrete shelters and two steel static water tanks.

Within the shelter was more frightening than outside it, where at least the percussion of the explosions was more dispersed and you could see how near or far was the falling masonry; and burning buildings close by made it very hot inside the shelter. The noise was coming from everywhere. Then came machine-gunning. The static tanks were perforated and several inches of water entered the shelter. The planes retired, the fires continued to burn, people began to move and dawn came. I am told that the same evening Lord Haw-Haw, who broadcasted in English from Germany, said “Exeter was a jewel — we have destroyed it”.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War

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