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75-year anniversary of Baedeker Blitz on Canterbury when city was showered with bombs

By Gazette reporter

On June 1, 1942, bombs rained down on Canterbury in a deadly act of revenge orchestrated by Hitler.

Now, 75 years to the day, Canterbury Christ Church University modern history lecturer Dr Martin Watts and student Jordan Newton look back at how the city united in the face of terror. 

The Dean of Canterbury, Dr Hewlett Johnson, surveys the ruins of the bombed Cathedral

The Dean of Canterbury, Dr Hewlett Johnson, surveys the ruins of the bombed Cathedral

It was a day which signalled an escalation in the air war between Britain and Germany and one the city will never forget.

On the night of June 1, 1942, the German Luftwaffe descended on Canterbury, carpeting with bombs everything beneath them in a savage act of retaliation.

Two days earlier the RAF, under Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, had destroyed 85% of Cologne following an intensive bombing campaign of German cities in the first six months of 1942, and Adolf Hitler was out for revenge.

This escalation, on the part of Germany, included the widening of targets from purely military and logistical objectives to those with significant cultural and historical importance.

The north side of St. George's Place, in the immediate aftermath of the June 1942 blitz

The north side of St. George's Place, in the immediate aftermath of the June 1942 blitz

Canterbury – along with other cities including Exeter, York, Bath and Norwich – was in the sights of Hitler, who hoped to avenge the raids on Germany by attacking civilian morale in Britain through these cultural targets.

As a basis for selection, the 1937 Baedeker guide for German tourists was used by the Luftwaffe to pick out the cities which most embodied British cultural history, hence the title given to the raids.

As a result of the bombing of Canterbury on June 1, 43 people lost their lives and almost 100 were wounded.

The physical damage to the city included 800 buildings destroyed, with 1,000 seriously damaged and a further 5,000 less so.

Homes ruined after 1942 blitz

Homes ruined after 1942 blitz

Thanks to the efforts of the emergency services and the many civilian volunteers in tackling the vast number of incendiaries dropped, damage to the cathedral was restricted to the loss of the library.

After the shock of the raid the people of Canterbury stood defiant alongside the surviving, symbolic structure of the cathedral, demonstrating that Hitler’s attempt to break civilian morale in the city was futile.

The combination of the new RAF offensive and the revenge bombing undertaken by the Luftwaffe represented a deliberate attempt to win the war by undermining civilian morale, bringing home to both populations the true meaning of total war.

In this sense, the Canterbury raid signified the life and death struggle that enveloped Europe in the Second World War, the involvement of civilians and the pursuit of victory at any cost.

Lady Wootons Green

Lady Wootons Green

The survival of Canterbury Cathedral while fire raged across the city during the Baedeker raid was largely down to a small band of brave men.

The fire watchers were high up on the roof, picking up and putting out incendiaries as they fell on the historic landmark.

Their heroism has become legendary, and a campaign started by KentOnline's sister paper the Kentish Gazette, called Remember Our Blitz Fire Watchers, resulted in the unveiling of a carved stone memorial plaque to them in the cathedral in 2004.

In June 1942 the fire watchers on the roof were Tom Hoare, Alfred Burden, Joe Wanstall and Tom Shaw – all experienced men, some having served in the First World War.

Service personnel try to find survivors in the debris that once was Dashwood's toy shop

Service personnel try to find survivors in the debris that once was Dashwood's toy shop

Their leader, Mr Hoare, who died in 1957, was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1944 for his services in the Blitz and he was presented to the King and Queen during the royal visit in 1946.

In his diary he wrote: “In the event of an alert it was our duty to patrol the gutters and roofs of the cathedral.

“It was about midnight when the alert sounded and we said to one another that we were for it tonight.

Houses on the Thanington estate were also destroyed

Houses on the Thanington estate were also destroyed

“We could hear the roar of the plans overhead and when we looked up we saw flares shoot up into the sky from them and high explosives and incendiaries began to fall. They seemed to be coming down like hailstones.”

Miraculously, thanks to their bravery, the cathedral survived unscathed, despite 16 bombs landing nearby.

Canterbury Christ Church University’s Centre for Kent History and Heritage is commemorating the raids with a half-day conference and city walk on Saturday. For information visit www.canterbury.ac.uk.

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