The Terror Raids of 1942
The Baedecker Blitz
In 1942 Britain suffered a number of devastating air raids across several historic cities. The air raids became known as the ‘Baedecker Blitz’ after a German tourist guide. Jan Gore has carefully researched each of the raids with many first person accounts from those who were affected, many previously unpublished.
These were retaliatory raids for the new RAF ‘area bombing’ strategy which had begun with the Lubeck raid in March 1942. Although in turn many in Britain actually saw this as a retaliatory raid. From their perspective the new area bombing was the first full response to the Luftwaffe raid on the medieval city of Coventry in 1940, the first of the big raids during the main ‘Blitz’ on Britain.
The first German retaliatory raid was on the 23rd April 1942, on the very same night that the RAF launched its raid on Rostock. The following excerpt looks at how the second ‘area bombing’ raid on Rostock gave an extra impetus the Luftwaffe response:
Rostock raids, 23-26 April
Meanwhile, RAF Bomber Command had turned its attention to the Baltic port of Rostock, a city of about 123,000 inhabitants, roughly the same size as Norwich.
It had some industrial targets, including a shipyard making submarines and a factory making Heinkel aircraft parts, but had only light defences.
On the night of Thursday 23 April-Friday 24 April the RAF undertook the first of a series of four attacks on Rostock. The raids - concentrated, incendiary and area-bombing — were very similar to the successful raid on Lubeck, but also included an attempt by a small group of bombers to carry out a precision attack on the Heinkel aircraft factory to the south of Rostock.
The first attack on the city began at about 2am and lasted about an hour. The Heinkel aircraft factory was on fire and the smoke went up more than 8,000 feet. As with Lubeck, serious damage was caused to historic buildings, provoking another angry German reaction. ‘British barbarians: historic monuments in Rostock bombarded’ ran the headline in the Volkischer Beobachter.
The raids became increasingly heavy and fires from the earlier attacks continued to burn. Photographs taken after the third night’s raid show swarms of people flocking towards the battered station to join crowds already waiting there for trains to take them away from what Berlin described as ‘terror raids’.
Goebbels wrote in his diaries about the tremendous damage to Rostock:
Last night the heaviest air attack yet launched had the seaport of Rostock once again as its objective. Tremendous damage is reported... all long-distance communication has been interrupted... Seventy per cent of all houses in the centre of Rostock are said to have been destroyed. I now consider it absolutely essential that we continue with our reprisal raids. Like the English we must attack centres of culture, especially those which have only little anti-aircraft guns.
He dined with Hitler the next day, on 27 April. Hitler was
‘very angry about the latest English attack on Rostock... The Fuhrer declared that he would repeat these raids night after night until the English were sick and tired of terror attacks’.
By the end of the fourth raid, 70 percent of Rostock had been wiped out by almost 800 tons of bombs, in 521 sorties, with only twelve aircraft missing. Some 6,000 civilians were killed or seriously injured. The raids were so heavy that it was felt unwise to conceal the damage done from the German public. The German News Agency said of the third raid ‘There was considerable damage to houses and losses in dead and injured’. These were the highest German casualties so far in the three years since 1939.
By now, tens of thousands of residents were fleeing to surrounding villages and towns; it was reported that the roads leading south were choked with refugees. Reports from Berlin, published in the Manchester Guardian, alleged that about 100,000 people had been evacuated, ‘almost the entire pre war population’. There was panic. However, Goebbels knew his raids must continue. If the RAF had caused terror to German civilians, the Luftwaffe must do the same to their English counterparts.
The ‘Baedeker’ raids are given their name
Soon afterwards, Gustav Braun von Stumm (1888-1963), a spokesman for the German Foreign Office Press Department, took it upon himself to announce that as a reprisal for the damage caused at Lubeck and Rostock, ‘we shall go all out to bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker guide’. (He was referring to Karl Baedeker’s famous travel guide.)
This would not have taken the Luftwaffe long, as Karl Baedeker’s highest rating in Baedekers Great Britain was only two stars! There was never a ‘three-star blitz’.
The Aberdeen Press and Journal of 30 April 1942 states: ‘The Luftwaffe will have difficulty in finding objectives in England marked with three stars in Baedeker, there being none’. It goes on to say that the Baedeker system was invariably to give one star to places especially worth visiting, such as the Houses of Parliament, and two stars to world-famous monuments like the British Museum and the National Gallery. Several other newspapers made the same point.
‘Of the five cathedral cities allegedly chosen for their superb architecture and historical significance, only York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral were awarded two stars in the guide.’
Of the five cathedral cities allegedly chosen for their superb architecture and historical significance, only York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral were awarded two stars in the guide. Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths were given one star each, as were Exeter Cathedral and Guildhall, Norwich Cathedral and the Shambles and City Walls in York. To put this in context, most areas and buildings described in the Guide were not felt to merit even one star.
Gustav von Stumm’s remarks were inaccurate and ill-informed; both his name and the date have attracted some discussion. Although British accounts refer to him as a Baron because of the ‘von’ part of his name, this is incorrect; there is also some debate as to whether his name was Stumm or Sturm. The date of the speech itself is also disputed: was it on Friday 24 or Monday 27 April? In either case, it took place after the first raid on Exeter. While his remarks provided a hint about the new bombing strategy, they did not identify specific cities. (Lincoln, for example, was given a rating of two stars for its cathedral, so might easily have also been a target.)
Stumm’s statement was soon to appear in newspapers around the world; they immediately began to describe the new attacks as the ‘Baedeker Blitz’, a name by which it became universally known. The first British usage of the term ‘Baedeker’ was by the Daily Mail on 29 April 1942, following the first raid on Norwich the night before, on 27/28 April.
The British press took a scornful view of von Stumm’s announcement. The Sphere of 9 May was quick to point out that it was the working-class residences of York that had been attacked, rather than three-star buildings of historical importance. More sarcasm came from the Thanet Advertiser of 19 May 1942, which said that Thanet towns were not on the Baedeker bombing list as they could not muster a single star between them.
This excerpt from The Terror Raids of 1942: The Baedeker Blitz appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.