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Baedeker Raid on Cowes May 4/5 1942

by Cecil B Wright

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Archive List > The Blitz

Contributed by 
Cecil B Wright
Location of story: 
Cowes Isle of Wight
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Contributed on: 
29 July 2005

COWES AIR RAID May 4/5th 1942
The events leading up to the Cowes raid contained a strong element of tit for tat. In the years 1940/41 Britain endured intense air raids, at first by day but latterly by night courtesy of the German Luftwaffe which used sophisticated radio navigational aids. In the course of these raids many lessons were learnt by the defenders including the fact that greater damage was caused by incendiary than by high explosive bombs. Retaliation by the RAF at that time was puny and reflected the relative weakness of RAF Bomber Command, added to which the effectiveness of the reply was greatly diluted by poor navigation with the result that only a small proportion of the bombs delivered fell within ten miles of the intended target.
By early 1942 the situation had completely changed. The Luftwaffe was heavily committed against the Russians and the RAF had gathered strength, not only in numbers but also in material with newly designed four engined bombers, electronic navigation aids and revolutionary radar equipment which provided bomb aimers with a 'picture' of the ground below. The effectiveness of the latter was at its greatest when the aircraft was over a coastline. With the lessons of the German blitz in mind and with the new material strength at its disposal Bomber Command devised plans for devastating fire raids on German cities. As a prelude experimental raids were made against the Hansiatic Baltic ports of Rostock and Lubeck. These were historic medieval towns of no substantial military importance. Lubeck was chosen because many of the buildings were constructed of wood and therefore highly combustible, also because it was weakly defended.
Hitler's reaction was to order retaliatory raids on English cultural centres saying that he would rewrite the Baedeker guide to Britain. Resulting from this threat the raids that followed were known as the Baedeker raids.
The Cowes raid occured on the night of the 4/5 th of May 1942 and was in two parts. The first attack started at about 10.30 pm and lasted for about two hours. This was followed by a lull during which the bombers returned to their bases to refuel and rearm before setting out to deliver a second dose to the stricken town. Air raid alerts were a nightly occurance and the townsfolk of Cowes were somewhat inured to the passage of German bombers on their way to more important inland targets. Therefore, to many of the townsfolk the warning siren on that occasion seemed to presage yet another night disturbed by the pulsating throb of passing aircraft engines and the ever present fear of a stray bomb.
At the time of the attack the Polish destroyer Blyskawica which was built at John Samual White's shipyards, was in the place of its origin undergoing a refit and in the subsequent action it maintained incessant anti-aircraft fire.
We were living in Alfred Street East Cowes and previously when the air raid siren sounded it was my father's habit to stand outside the house to keep watch for any signs of imminent danger, whilst the rest of the family sheltered in the house. The surface air raid shelter which serviced our own and neighbouring dwellings was situated in our garden but in spite of this we had not made use of it before the night of the attack. On this occasion my father went outside as usual but quickly came back into the house and ushered us to the shelter. I was sixteen years old and had spent the evening in the Royalty cinema West Cowes watching a Laurel and Hardy film called 'Great Guns'. On arriving home I went to bed and I clearly remember a very strong premonition of danger that had me quaking with fear. Nor was I alone in this because I could hear a dog continuously howling somewhere in the distance. When the siren sounded it was as a confirmation of my forebodings.
On leaving the house we heard the sound of aircraft engines and saw a string of flares descending in a west to east direction in a line approximately over the Saunders Roe aircraft factory. The next two hours were a jumble of sounds and smells, aircraft diving- the scream of bombs, machine gunning and anti-aircraft pom poms firing, the explosions of bombs, the drifting smell of explosives mingled with brickdust, women praying and singing hymns and all the while the increasing light of leaping flames as the incendiary bombs set the area ablaze. My father and I were the only two adult males in our part of the shelter and we sat facing each other in the doorway. I recall seeing the spurts of flame as the incediaries hit the ground in the surrounding gardens. One of these bombs fell in the entry to our shelter, out of sight of my father but within my view. Alerted by the brightness of the burning bomb my father acted with great speed and presence of mind. Taking hold of the tailfin he threw the bomb away from the shelter towards the foot of our neighbours garden. It was about this time that men in the other part of the shelter remembered old bedridden Tommy Gutteridge, an octogenarian living a few doors away and with great bravery they set off to rescue him, which they duly accomplished. Tommy was no stranger to danger having fought in several wars.
When it became clear that the bombers had departed we left the shelter and took stock of the damage to our home. It had received no direct hit but the effects of blast were such that we could stand in the lower floor rooms and see the stars through the holes in floor and roof overhead. Throughout the street the surrounding ground was strewn shin deep with slates and rubble. Great yachts laid up in Marvin's yard were ablaze and we watched two firemen helping a badly injured man up the hill towards the hospital. Father and I took a walk in the immediate area to find out the extent of the damage. As we passed the Castle Inn on the lower corner of Alfred Street the Publican's son emerged and Father asked him if he might have a bottle of beer. Help yourself, was the reply, theres a delayed action bomb inside. He then told us that he was sheltering in the billiard room when the bomb came through the ceiling. We returned to our house and using a primus stove we were able to make tea for ourselves and our neighbours. At this point the elderly lady living next door upbraided my Father for the incendiary bomb incident saying that he had burned down her fence.
A feeling of immense relief at having survived the ordeal took hold of me but sadly this proved to be premature for without warning the bombers returned and the nightmare started again. Once again we sat through two hours of hell in a repeat performance. This finally ended and daybreak came to reveal shattered and burning buildings and empty spaces on the skyline where previously stood the homes of friends and fellow townsfolk. Although the houses in Alfred Street were still standing it was obvious that not one of them was habitable.
At the foot of Afred Street, Clarence Road had been badly hit, and it seemed that the southern waterfront on the east side of the river had suffered badly. This was probably due to the 'creepback' phenomonen which also affected RAF bombings. It was rumoured that the Blyskswica had put up a smoke screen and if this were true it would have obscured the nothern area and explains why the concentration of bombs fell in the southern parts.
The remnants of a small van stood in Clarence Road. This had wheels without tyres and had literally been blown apart. It belonged to Mrs Hann the wife of a local butcher who had been on WVS duty and according to reports had been caught by the onset of the second attack. Sadly she was killed as were several people in the adjoining houses.
My family set about gathering what they could of our belongings prior to our setting out to shelter with relatives at Marks Corner. I must confess that I felt a tremendous sense of elation probably as a reaction to the ordeal of the previous hours, and I spent some time walking around the neighbourhood looking at the damage. On returning to Alfred Street I saw an open backed lorry being driven slowly up the hill, bumping and swaying its way over the rubble. As it passed me I saw that a tarpaulin in the back was covering some unidentifiable mounds. The shaking motion had caused this to move slightly and sticking out from the back and shaking in unison with the movement of the lorry were human feet and I realised that these belonged to some of dead victims of the raid.
May 5th turned out to be a beautiful spring day and shortly after 8 o'clock workers from other towns arrived and many of these spent time sightseeing. One group was congregated outside the Castle Inn and I warned them that it contained an unexploded bomb. This was greeted with derision and I was told that if this were so there would be a warning notice indicating the danger. A few days later the bomb exploded and blew the pub apart. I have often wondered what went through the minds of that group of workers at this turn of events.
The family gathered up as many possesions and as much clothes as we could carry and set of for Marks Corner. After crossing the Medina on the floating bridge we struggled our way to the outskirts of West Cowes. We were turned back many times by members of the Civil Defence because of unexploded bombs. This considerably extended our journey, but eventually our luck changed when a workmate who was a Civil Defence volunteer pulled up in a car and took us to our destination.
Looking back at the bombing pattern it is evident that the German plan was to aim high explosive bombs, many of which were of the delayed action type, at road junctions meanwhile saturating the area with incendiary bombs. This had unfortunate consequences for many who lived near the junctions. One family
living in a relatively isolated house close to the site of the more recently built Ryde, Newport, East Cowes roundabout were wiped out when their house received a direct hit. This was but one of many such tragedies. A huge bomb exploded at the juntion of Yarborough and Victoria roads leaving a surface shelter on the very lip of the crater. Miraculously most of the people in the shelter survived. Equally miraculously no German aircraft was shot down by the intense A. A. fire. However the famous nightfighter pilot Flight Lieutenant Karel Kuttelwascher DFC and Bar, took off in a single seater fighter from RAF Thorney Island and infiltrated the stream of bombers returning to France. Finding an airfield with an illuminated flarepath and aircraft about to land he quickly shot down three of the bombers before returning to base. One other bomber met a similar fate at the hands of another RAF pilot but at a different airbase.
There were many acts of bravery on that night and one must pay tribute to the Civil Defence organisation and its workers. On the debit side I must record that when we returned to our erstwhile home to reclaim our possesions we found that some had been looted. However in the time lapse between leaving and returning many outsiders came into the area including members of the Army. For many weeks after the raid bomb disposal sqads were occupied in digging up and neutralising the scattered delayed action bombs, and since these were set to explode at different times I can only wonder at the cool bravery displayed by the soldiers.
Looking back after sixty years I recall the schoolfriends, neighbours and acquaintances who were killed and rememberthe events which completely changed the direction of my life.
The following is my sister Barbara's account of the raid
Just like my elder brother, I too had a premonition of danger that night.
I was in the habit of sleeping on a mattress under a table, with my clothes nearby at the ready. That night, although my parents were unaware of it, I slept in my clothes - even my shoes! and sure enough I was awakened by my father and told to hurry with him to the shelter. This was in the garden of our house, only afew yards from our backdoor, and catered for our neighbours as well as my family. As we ran together the bombs were falling and there were machine guns firing, mingling with the noise of anti-aircraft guns. Not too far from us (in Alfred Street) was the river Medina where the Polish ship was putting up a good fight.The dust, created by the bombed buildings, penetrated our shelter and coated our mouths and throats. Thankfully my mother had left a milk jug to soak with water from the tap, and as water pipes had been broken, no water could be obtained in the normal way. Someone went back into our house and fetched the jug of milky water and so we were able to relieve our discomfort somewhat.
During the lull in the two raids, air raid wardens came to our shelter to check on us, and brought us some fresh water. Also during this lull, Mrs Ferguson, who was in our shelter, and her
children were collected by a relative. Her husband was away in the army. Thankfully she was not there to see her home go up in flames when it was hit during the second raid.
Other than the awful sounds of bombs falling, and the noise of the aircraft I recall the continual praying of the women in our shelter, and hearing my mother vow that she would never enjoy a firework display in the future. This mention of the future gave us all hope. I think of that night every time I hear or see fireworks.
The next morning my parents collected as much as we could carry, and after pinning a note on our door, reporting that we were all OK and to where we were heading, we made our way (as described by my elder brother). I can remember my surprise at the height of the pile of bricks in our street and of how weary we were.
It took us a long time to reach my Aunt's at Marks Corner, and during our trek I saw the body of a young man being collected from the road at Northwood. I believe that he was a Civil Defence worker from Ryde by the name of Weeks.
I realise looking back, that was the moment when I grew up.
I was 12 years old.

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