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Exeter 1942: Surviving A Baedeker Raid

by B_Pollard

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Brian Pollard
Location of story: 
April 1942
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 November 2003

Exeter 1942

Rob Wilton, an old-time music hall and radio entertainer with a noticeable Yorkshire accent, always began his spiel with "The day war broke out...". That day I was on holiday in Scotland.
I returned to start the new academic year and left school at the end of July 1940 after the School Certificate examinations. My working life began the following Monday at Devon County Council's finance department until 1942; then there was war service in the Fleet Air Arm and so university was postponed until 1946

Before leaving school a few of us started a model aeroplane flying club. There was widespread interest in airplanes particularly as a Polish squadron of Spitfires was stationed at Exeter Airport. In the early years the Germans did not trouble Exeter very much. Sometimes their planes became lost or failed to identify the intended target; so rather than take ammunition home they dropped bombs and fired guns at any handy town. Exeter and places like it along the south coast suffered sporadic outbursts of this kind. It was not until 1942 that serious attacks were made on Exeter.

By this time male members of businesses and local government staffs in the city, usually working in pairs on a rote, would spend a night at their place of work and be ready to react to any emergency which might arise. It was so at the offices of Devon County council which were at The Castle in the centre of the city. My usual partner was Ben who, although of conscription age, was exempted because of a medical condition. He was able, nevertheless, to take his turn at fire-watching, as it was called.

Our night duties were mostly uneventful until towards the end of April 1942. The air raid siren was quickly followed by the sound of high explosive bombs. Ben and I went to the ancient wall of the castle to see what was going on and very soon magnesium flares came floating down on parachutes. Knowing there were many telephone wires criss-crossing the pitched roofs gulleys and parapets of the council offices and imagining the problems should any of the flares become entangled, we made haste to the roofs collecting a stirrup pump on the way. Water tanks, sand bags and various tools were already in places among the roofs. We saw where the main danger lay and were in time to extinguish a flare which had rolled to a gulley and had already melted the lead. The fire did not penetrate and so the day was saved
Ben lived at Tiverton some fifteen miles away and usually came home with me to have breakfast. On our way we saw a good deal of damage to buildings and some were still burning. The folk at home were unhurt but we had lost most of the window glass at the back of the house. It must have been an exploratory raid because ten days later, in the night of 3/4 May, they came again and that was far worse.

Our house was one in a crescent of seven houses. It had railings around a basement area with stone steps and a railed stone bridge over it to the front door, a cellar under the road, basement, ground floor, first floor, second floor and attic. Father, mother, elder sister, me, and younger brother and sister made up the family. Father had a plaster cast around his body from hip to neck, having cracked a bone in his spine from a fall from a ladder. I was 18 and awaiting a call from the Fleet Air Arm to start training as a pilot.

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”. The raid became known as a Baedeker raid as, it was said, most of the information for planning it was obtained from the travel book of that name.

Brian Pollard - Aug 2003

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