So boasted German radio the day after the city was attacked by bombers in the early hours of 4 May 1942. In many ways the statement was entirely accurate as, despite the demolition of so much in the 1930s, the attack of 1942 initiated a process of destruction that wasn't halted until the late 1970s, a period during which Exeter lost vast amounts of its historic architecture. The image left © Express & Echo, shows ruins in Catherine Street.
Exeter was targeted in 1942 for a number of reasons. It was completely undefended, and it was within easy reach of German bombers crossing the English Channel from Northern France, and the RAF had recently destroyed much of the ancient Hanseatic German port of Lübeck.
But Exeter was targeted primarily because of the rich historic fabric of its compact city centre. It was regarded as one of the most picturesque cities in southern England, although one which was in danger of spoiling itself through insensitive redevelopment. Much had been demolished by the local authority between 1900 and 1942, a period which saw many of the city's oldest timber-framed buildings destroyed during slum clearances, but much remained, built up over centuries on the old medieval street plan. In the words of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner: "the German bombers found Exeter primarily a medieval city, they left it primarily a Georgian and early-Victorian city".
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.
The image above right © Express & Echo, shows firefighters near St Stephen's in the High Street. The image below left © Express & Echo, is the view over Catherine Street and Bedford Circus after the clearance of all war-damaged property. Exeter had been bombed 18 times prior to 04 May 1942, the first being in August 1940. These earlier raids were relatively mild and little damage was done, although there were a number of casualties. They were the product of German aircraft dropping surplus bombs over the city on the way back to base having targeted major industrial sites much further north of Exeter.
Lübeck was bombed on 28th and 29th March, and the first retaliatory attack on Exeter, the first of the so-called Baedeker cultural targets, seems to have began on 23rd and 24th April. Only seven high explosive bombs were dropped, killing five civilians but inflicting relatively little material damage. The following night the bombers returned and 65 high explosive bombs were dropped, most of which fell in the residential area of Pennsylvannia causing extensive damage and killing 73. In his book 'The Three-Star Blitz', Charles Whiting made the extraordinary claim that following the bombing raid in late April some of Exeter's citizens, believing that the Cathedral served as both a guide and a target, advocated dynamiting the Cathedral itself to deter further attacks. The focus of the Baedeker raids then turned to Bath, Norwich and York, but the bombers returned to Exeter in May, the city was blitzed and the destruction this time was immense.
The image right © Express & Echo shows the destroyed chapel of St James in Exeter Cathedral. If the pillars supporting the clerestory windows had failed then the entire stone-vaulted roof over the choir would've collapsed.
In the early hours of 4 May 1942 Junker Ju 88 bombers crossed the English Channel and followed the river Exe from the coast until they reached Exeter, dropping hundreds of flares to illuminate the city. The first incendiaries fell at around 1.50am in the area known as Newtown, near the medieval suburb of St Sidwell.
The Exeter Blitz lasted for 1 hour and 20 minutes, during the course of which 10,000 incendiaries and 75 tons of high explosive bombs were dropped on the undefended city. Within 30 minutes nearly 70 separate fires raged uncontrolled throughout Exeter. The high explosives demolished buildings immediately, blocking streets and making any attempt to fight the fires caused by the incendiaries impossible, and a strong wind fanned the flames into a firestorm. Huge swathes of the city simply burned despite the efforts of the city's firefighters. The German aircraft allegedly machine-gunned anyone they saw in the streets below.
Exeter suffered the greatest amount of destruction in a single event since 1003AD when it was laid waste by the Danes. Being constructed of wood and plaster, much of the city was literally incinerated. Nearly 40 acres of the historic centre was either destroyed or severely damaged, including 50% of the High Street, once described as "among the most picturesque thoroughfares not merely in Devon, but in the kingdom" (although its character had been gradually eroded throughout the early decades of the 20th century, even before the bombs of 1942.)
Over 156 civilians were killed with nearly 600 more injured. 1500 buildings were destroyed and 2700 were seriously damaged. Over 16000 houses suffered moderate-to-severe damage. 9 churches were destroyed or seriously damaged, along with 26 inns, 400 shops, 6 banks, 150 offices and 50 warehouses. The map above left illustrates those portions of the city directly affected by the raid of 4 May 1942, the city wall highlighted in blue. The damage actually extended beyond the edge of the map, towards the north-east. It is interesting to compare this map with the one shown here depicting the extent of the destruction in Exeter over the course of the 20th century as a whole.
The architectural casualties included the Lower Market, Bedford Circus, Southernhay West, Dix's Field, Paragon House, the Hall of the Vicars Choral, St Catherine's Almshouses, the Country House Inn, the New Inn, the medieval church of St Lawrence, the Eastgate Arcade, Bampfylde House, the Abbots' Lodge, the Choristers' School, the Regency Subscription Rooms, Higher Summerlands, Deller's Cafe, the 'Norman House', the Chevalier Inn, the Globe Hotel, the former townhouse of the Earls of Morley, Nos. 226 & 227 on the High Street, the West of England Insurance building, and large areas of the West Quarter, Catherine Street, Sidwell Street, Paris Street, South Street and the High Street.
Incredibly, the Cathedral itself survived. The interior contained the longest unbroken medieval Gothic vaulting anywhere in the world and yet the only significant damage was caused when a high-explosive bomb destroyed the side chapel of St James in the south aisle of the choir. If the Luftwaffe were aiming for the Cathedral then they failed spectacularly. The two transept towers still stood over the city as they had done for 800 years, and as they still do today. The 'jewel' of Exeter always has been the Cathedral and although the Nazis vowed to return to complete their aim, the raid of 4 May proved to be the last time German bombs fell on the city. The image above © Express & Echo, shows the view towards the Cathedral across South Street from the area of the Lower Market. The steeple of St Mary Major is just visible through the smoke on the far left. The tower of the Catholic Sacred Heart church in South Street is on the far right.
There is no question that the Exeter Blitz of May 1942 was a total calamity for the city. Thomas Sharp, the city's post-war town planner, believed that the Blitz of 1942 destroyed up to 50% of Exeter's historic buildings. He also offered the opinion that "Exeter was not wholly a jewel. And the Germans did not wholly destroy it". It is too easy to buy into the much-circulated myth that Exeter was 'destroyed' by German bombs. The reality is rather more complex. What was once the historic core of Exeter now can't even lay claim to being Georgian or early-Victorian. It is resolutely a product of the 20th century. Slum clearances, wartime bombing, local authority indifference, post-war rebuilding and the post-war redevelopment of many areas unaffected by 1942 all play a part in explaining Exeter's largely dismal 21st century appearance. As Gavin Stamp states in his book 'Britain's Lost Cities': "The Cathedral remains glorious, but the city is certainly no longer a jewel".