Raid #8 “Baedeker Raid” (29 Apr. 1942)

The 80th anniversary of the Baedeker Raid on York sees the launch of this write-up of the raid. It will be added to throughout the remaining months of the project – so please do check back from time to time! If you have additional information, ideally with photographs we can use, or documentation informing corrections – we’d love to hear from you! Please email us at raidsoveryork@outlook.com or using the other contact details at the bottom of the Homepage

While one of the aims of the Raids Over York project is to detail all of the eleven bombing raids on York, there’s still one ‘main’ raid among them. Often known as the ‘Baedeker Raid’ due to its association with a series of retaliatory attacks by the Luftwaffe on five historic English cities in April and May 1942, “York’s turn” came in the early hours of Wednesday, 29th April 1942.

And just as there were 11 individual raids on the city spread out between August 1940 and December 1942, the daily lives of York citizens were punctuated by vastly more ‘false alarms’ – air-raid sirens that whirred up day and night whenever an enemy plane was identified (or misidentified) heading vaguely in the direction of the city. This included any incoming aircraft coming across the North Sea towards Yorkshire’s east coast, even if those planes were actually heading on for other locations, such as Hull, Sheffield, Manchester or Liverpool, all of which had by the time of York’s Baedeker Raid received considerable destruction during their ‘Blitz’.

The false alarms in York are thought to have numbered up to 780 by the time of the city’s eighth actual raid in the early hours of 29th April 1942. It would be easy to assume that York citizens had grown accustomed, even lackadaisical to the alarms. This was the case for Brian Rusling, as a 10-year-old during the Baedeker raid, living with his family at 18 Linton Street, off Poppleton Road. After so many false alarm raids, they had grown complacent to using their Morrison Shelter. But when the bombs fell, Brian recalls that they and their neighbours moved very quickly to their shelters!


Baedeker
German city of Lübeck – destroyed in a firestorm caused by an R.A.F. boming raid in 28th March 1942. IMAGE: Bundesarchiv (CC)

There were good grounds, however, towards the end of April 1942 for thinking that York might soon be a target of another, and more serious, bombing raid. The Royal Air Force‘s (R.A.F.) had set 234 aircraft to destroy the historic German cities of Lübeck on 28th March and Rostock on 25th April 1942. Radio Berlin: As a reprisal for the bombing of Lübeck and Rostock, Nazi propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm swore to the German people that ‘[w]e shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.’“ The attacks on Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury in the spring of 1942 therefore became known as the ‘Baedeker Raids’, named after the famous German-published travel guides by Karl Baedeker.

‘Baedeker’ targets, such as York, are often were understood to have been chosen ‘as centres of culture’ rather than military or strategic importance.  As the tale of the raid on York emerges below, this was not strictly true.

Exeter was the first British city to be bombed in the Baedeker Raids. On the night of 23/24 April 1942, the Luftwaffe attacked the cathedral city with high explosives and incendiaries. It’s historic cathedral survived, but 70 people were killed and 55 wounded.

Two days later it was Bath’s turn to be targeted. Over two consecutive nights, on 25/26 and 26/27 April 1942, the Luftwaffe bombed the city. Over 400 people were killed, the city’s communications were badly affected and its railway was put out of action.

Norwich was then raided on 27th April 1942 and again two nights later. These attacks killed 200 people and the historic St Julian’s Church on King Street near-completely destroyed. Norwich’s Norman cathedral and castle, however, survived the raids.

By the night of the 28th April, people in York surely must have fearing their turn was possible.

It’s too easy to forget that we know the outcome of the bigger story: York wasn’t destroyed in the Baedeker Raid, or any subsequent raid, just as the Allies did not lose World War II. But civilians and military in York that night did not know this. The War for Britain was not going well. Yes, America had joined the Allied campaign following the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, and American troops arrived in Britain to train from January 1942 onwards, but they did not enter the theatre of war in Europe for a another year.

Britain, itself, had suffered one military disaster after another ever since Dunkirk in the spring of 1940: the Norwegian campaign’s failure in April 1940, the Reich’s U-Boats maintained their upper hand until at least mid-1942 and continued to sink scores of British military and merchant shipping, the Siege of Malta was getting increasingly fraught by the time of the Baedeker Raid on York, and in The Far East, the fall of Singapore in February 1942 had resulted in 80,000 troops taken prisoner and the collapse of the British Empire’s rule in the region. It would not be until victory at El Alamein in North Africa on 11 November 1942 that British forces – and civilians – truly had something to give them hope of victory and ending the war.


Telling the Baedeker Raid’s story

The story of the Baedeker Raid on York has be told before – and never in more detail than by Charles Whiting (see photo below), who, having been born in Bootham, had experienced the raid himself as a teenager. “[I]t meant excitement,” said Whiting in an interview with The Yorkshire Post and York Evening Press, before his death in 2007, ” the start of a big adventure for an impressionable 15-year-old; all ‘[a] bit of a lark”. The War, in general, took a hold of Whiting, who volunteered for the Army as a 16-year-old in 1943 and served in the Low Countries and Germany.

After, he published volumes of non-fiction and, under the pseudonym ‘Leo Kessler’, plenty of thriller fiction covering the conflict and a particular fascination with the activities of the Wehrmacht German Army (with titles such as “Schirmer’s Death Legion”, “Valley of the Assassins”, and “Sabres of the Reich” – see below).

But Whiting’s origins in York led him to also write (under his pen-name of “Leo Kessler”) a non-fiction account of the Baedeker Raid on the city in The Great York Air Raid (1979) – also reprinted in 2012 under his real name, Charles Whiting. It’s a breathless account of the raid, with a good deal of his ‘thriller’ novel background used to give it a good “page-turner” vibe. From his account, Whiting had evidently studied official archive papers on the raid, had access to several people’s first-hand accounts of the raid, including one of the German pilots, and no doubt used his own memories and what he had heard secondhand at the time and after. Sadly, Whiting wears his research lightly, and gives no chance to cross-reference or know where his source information is taken from, which is problematic in telling the story of the raid.

Leo Kessler’s The Great York Air Raid, published in 1979.

The Raids Over York project’s story of the Baedeker Raid, therefore, references Whiting’s account and credits him when this is the case. But we also draw on lots more archival research, such as reports made by the Civil Defence services. Following the 80th anniversary of the raid on 29th April 2022, we will also be adding other oral history testimonies from people who have contacted the project, as well as from recognised oral history collections held by the York Oral History Society.


Where to begin?

The night of the raid was a clear one, albeit with a ‘gusty’, easterly wind according to 10th Anti-Aircraft Division’s report (10AAD/S/19/5/G(INT)), that would have felt like a bitter late taste of Winter to civil-defence personnel watching the skies for incoming raiders.

The city was struck by ‘brilliant moonlight’, as noted in a confidential report into the raid jointly-written on 21st May 1942 by the C. T. Hutchinson (Chairman of the Civil Defence Emergency Committee in York) and T. C. Benfield as A.R.P. Controller. Such moonlight ‘illuminated the area of the city very effectively’. It was be a great asset for the arriving Luftwaffe bombers.

At least 25 enemy aircraft from five units – Gruppe 106, II/K.G.2, K.G.100, IV/K.G.30 and IV/K.77 – came across the North Sea from their bases in the Reich-occupied Low Countries, flying low at 500-1,000 ft to avoid detection by RADAR, and entering over the British mainland between Filey and Withernsea.

The sirens sounded the ‘Alert’ at 2.36am – but the bombs were already falling by then. As Benfield and Hutchinson’s confidential report admitted, ‘[t]here was in effect, therefore, no warning period’.

A detailed report (3004/G) from the 31st A.A. Battalion accounted for 35 enemy aircraft attacking York, working in waves, with up to 12 planes attacking at any one time. They were mainly at 6-8,000 ft high, but some came down to 500-1,000ft, when over their targets, just as they had done in their attack on Bath the week before. The 31st Battalion found it ‘interesting to note the variety of aircraft used in so small a force, which included [Heinkel] H.E. IIIs., [Junkers] J.U. 88s, [Dornier] D.C. 217 and it is believed [Dornier] D.C. 215s.’

The Luftwaffe’s strategy, according to British military intelligence, was to first drop flares ‘at the east and west ends of York’, and then follow with high explosive and incendiary bombs in the city.

Bootham is sometimes said to have been the first location to received bombing during the raid. But it was incendiary bombs in Tang Hall that were first reported to Control by the Police at 2.46am – tallying with British intelligence’s belief in their enemy dropping a ‘marker’ at the east side of the city. Then eight minutes later from an incident at Rose Street, off Haxby Road. ‘Reports then came in at frequent intervals until 04.40 hrs, when [a] H[igh] E[xplovise] in Bootham Row was reported by the Police’.

Between the falling of Rose Street and Bootham Row bombs, 65 high-explosive bombs (later corrected as 69) fell and detonated, with an additional 14 unexploded bombs, and 14 clusters of incendiary bombs had fallen on the city, according to a report on ‘Operations During the Raid’ produced by the Civil Defence shortly after the raid. This should be taken as the lowest estimate; in reality it was likely far higher.

The scale of bombing – at 79 high explosive bombs – could be read as modest, but York was a small city physically, and had not received such a level of bombing beforehand.

Arguably more important than a number tally of bombs was how it would have been experienced by the people of York, for which the words ‘fear’ and ‘alarm’ probably do not do justice to it. The raid lasted two hours and ten minutes in length. It’s an abstract exercise at times to think of 130 minutes, and what that feels like. Perhaps a useful way is to think of the raid the next time you happen to watch either of the ‘classic’ films made about the defence of the British mainland from the Luftwaffe during the war – Reach for the Skies or The Battle of Britain. When the credits come up, that it is when the bombing was beginning to cease in the Baedeker Raid on York.

Given the number of bombs that fell and were reported to the Control Headquarters between 2.46am and 4.40am and recognising that they ‘came in at frequent intervals’, it is perhaps a fools’ errand to try and tell the story of the raid bomb by bomb. The chaos caused by the bombs was found in almost all of the Wards of the City – the Wards, being the way the Civil Defence services were organised in York. The bombing destruction happening in one Ward was obviously its main priority and threat, but this was not recognised across all or even between neighbouring Wards, especially once telecommunications were cut in the bombing around 3.30am.

It’s best then to provide details of the raids – largely based on the ARP Wardens’ reports – on a Ward by Ward basis. These Ward by Ward accounts can be read here,

But below are some broad issues that merge from the reports, a summary of sorts. It helps allow the bigger picture effecting the city – the one that would only have dawned on most citizens the next morning when they could walk around the city to take in the scale and anomalies of the destruction.


City-wide

The dispersion of the bombs was peculiar in that almost all the bombs that fell within the city walls were incendiaries. In contrast, almost all high explosive bombs fell outside the immediate city centre and city walls. Benfield & Hutchinson’s confidential report gives as a good a short summary as could be given of the raid:

‘Major damage was done by fire to premises in Coney Street, the Guildhall, a large warehouse adjoining the River House [probably Rowntree’s], the Railway Station and other railway property, and to residential property. Damage by high explosive bombs was almost entirely outside the City walls – there was great devastation in the Bootham, Clifton, Leeman Road and Poppleton Road areas, and on Burton Stone Lane housing estate.

While it would be untrue to say that all Wards were evenly affected by the bombing – some Wards such as Knavesmire and Heworth passed almost without incident – the attack was city-wide. It reached deep into the city’s then-suburbs, its boundary, and beyond into what is today’s larger, modern boundary for York.

The raid resulted in the deaths of at least 94 people in the city and these were across most of its communities. More than 9,500 homes were damaged or destroyed, which was about a third of York’s housing in 1942.

Whiting’s account focuses predominantly on bombing in or near the city centre, but bombing affected communities across the city. This city-wide impact can be illustrated in a number of ways:

Of the 20 Rest Centres dotted across the city, 17 were ‘brought into use’ during the raid. (Two of these – Poppleton Road and the Honesty Girls’ Club in the Leeman Raid area – ‘were seriously damaged and rendered unusable’, and the one at Queen Anne’s School in Bootham/Clifton, had to close after opening due to being damaged. Seven other centres were slightly damaged.)

The lists of casualties at First Aid Posts across the city also show how most areas were affected – with the exception of the most-fortunate Dringhouses community:

  • Acomb (9 casualties)
  • City Infirmary (19 casualties)
  • Rougier Street (45 casualties)
  • Hungate (1 casualty)
  • Clifton (22 casualties)
  • Dringhouses (No casualties)

And then there are a series of maps that help visualise the city-wide impact of the raids. One map, produced by City of York very shortly after the raid – perhaps even during the raid (it still has pin marks showing where bombing information was being added), is particularly useful as a primary resource – even if there are a few bomb location errors on it.

City of York Baedeker Map showing locations of bombs, c. April 1942. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

Raids Over York‘s interactive map offers the same information of the city-wide locations of the bombs, and in some cases corrected information, and can be accessed here.

Raids Over York interactive digital map showing where bombs fell in York during the Baedeker Raid. IMAGE: Raids Over York

A further map shows the Luftwaffe’s intended targets, which were, again, city wide. This map was ‘requisitioned’ by a British soldier from York, rumoured to be a former Rowntree’s employee, who came across it in Germany during his wartime service with the British Army.

A British map of York annotated by the Luftwaffe to identify bombing targeted sites of note and interest. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

Prime Targets

Whilst the bombs fell far and wide over the city, it would be misleading not to admit that the Luftwaffe had principal targets.

For all the talk of it being a “Baedeker Raid”, revenging the destruction of Germany’s historic timber cities of Lübeck and Rostock by the R.A.F., the principal target of the Baedeker Raid was York’s railways.

Oberfeldwebel Hans Fruehauf seen on the Russian Front. IMAGE The Great York Air Raid, 1942.

Whiting notes that Oberfeldwebel Hans Fruehauf, an observer-gunner in one of the Junkers Ju-88 bombers over York in the raid, and just back form a tour on the Eastern Front in Russia, later recalled that they had been told to knock out the railway signalling at York. It was a German target in the bigger scheme of the World War: it would paralyse the L.&.N.E.R.’s railway traffic throughout the North-east, including the connection with Hull, from where Allied military aid was being sent by rail and then sea to Murmansk in the Soviet Union in their battle with Germany on the Eastern Front.

Junkers JU-88 – of the type used by Oberfeldwebel Hans Fruehauf in the Baedeker Raid on York. IMAGE: Wikipedia Common

The target of the railways is also evident in the annotated British map, roughly indicated in the ‘teardrop shape’ today affiliated with the ‘York Central’ regeneration project on the former railyards.

The Luftwaffe had seriously intended to bomb York as target as early as October 1941, as seen in detailed bombing instructions they had then prepared for their aircrews. Rather than history and heritage, York’s importance to the Luftwaffe was as a ‘communication centre’ of ‘road and railway’; an ‘important traffic junction’ with waggon works understood to be ‘now engaged on armament (apparently armoured wagons)’.

Luftwaffe target instructions for their aircrew in bombing York. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

The principal target, then, was the L.&.N.E.R. wagon works and good yards, with subsidiary targets of: repair sheds, the passenger station, manufactory assembly sheds, power plant, coach workshops, good sheds, works buildings, engine sheds dumps, and turntables.

Luftwaffe Target Map showing reconnaissance photo with annotations to show location of York’s wagon works and station IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

Should the Luftwaffe’s pilots overachieve in their mission, the secondary targets were the R.A.F. airfields at Clifton in York, and Pocklington, Bubwith, Appleton Roebuck, and Linton-on-Ouse.

Had the Germans wanted to destroy York’s history and heritage, they would surely have targeted their high explosive bombs on sites such as the Minster and known that the incendiaries they dropped within the city walls would not ‘catch’ as they had done with better preserved historic timber city such as Coventry in November 1940. As Oberfeldwebel Hans Fruehauf admitted, in Whiting’s account, the Minster appeared to them in their Junkers plane, “sticking right into the sky. … It was beautiful, standing there above the city bathed in the cold moonlight”; they couldn’t miss it.


Railway destruction

Given their target, and the lack of R.A.F. fighter pilot coverage to defend York that night, the Luftwaffe did considerable material damage to the city’s rail infrastructure.

Photos of the damage at the station speaks for itself. One particular image taken by an R.A.F. reconnaissance plane on the request of L.&.N.E.R the day after the raid, is particularly evocative of the damage caused by the bombing.

Bomb damage to York Railway Station and sidings beyond. IMAGE Tim Dryland
Detail of image above showing bomb damage to York Railway Station. IMAGE Tim Dryland

The attack on the station featured high explosives and incendiaries. It came as the 10.15pm express train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh had arrived and was standing in what is today’s Platform 5. According to Whiting, the passengers were largely military personnel squeezed in the train, and bound for Edinburgh. Most refused to leave the coaches to take cover. A high explosive at one end of the station brought down all the glazing in the station’s curved roof canopy, including onto the train. A stick of bombs hit the train and incendiaries quickly lit the timber roof, the track sleepers and some of the train’s coaches. One bomb fell close to the parcel store and police room, demolishing a cast iron roof column and several arch ribs and killing railway policeman Robert W. Smith.

Six of the Edinburgh trains coaches were totally destroyed, but the remaining fourteen were heroically saved.  Quick action by the Assistant Station Master, Mr Lyon, allowed two shunter trains to back out of the burning station with 14 of the 20 carriages, the others were left ablaze in the station.  The trains, and the considerable wounded personnel onboard were pulled to the relative safety of a station platform that then stood near Holgate Bridge, and assisted by a Rescue Party and A.R.P. Wardens.

Signalman Simpson did a similar heroic act with twenty burning coaches of a parcel van stood on Platform 15, shunting it safely out of the station and avoiding further damage to the station.

Women porters proceeded to kick incendiaries off the platforms, and the booking-office staff dragged blazing office furniture across Station Road, dumping it to burn out harmlessly in the ramparts and old moat of the city walls opposite the station.  Fire-watchmen proceeded to save the station’s booking-office takings for the day, filling a Wellington boot to allow them to carry it to the safety of the Station Hotel nearby. 

Platforms 1, 2 and 3 at York Railway Station after the raid. IMAGE: NRM/SSPL

The attack on the station resulted in the Parcel Office being completely destroyed by fire from incendiary bombs, and the Booking Office gutted.  There was also extensive damage to Platforms 1, 2 and 3.

Sadly, along with Robert W. Smith, L.&.N.E.R Railwayman, Station Foreman William Milner, also lost his life in the attack.

Map made by L&NER shortly after the Baedeker showing positions of individual incendiary and high explosive bombs – in the hundreds in total. IMAGE: L&NER

Beyond the station itself, a high explosive bomb fell on the York North Motive Power depot, destroying two locomotives including Class A4 Sir Ralph Wedgwood; a stick of bombs hit the L.&.N.E.R. stables on Leeman Road, which housed the drayhorses used to porter goods. Nineteen of the terrified horses were fortunately rescued by Stableman Alfred Martin, Van-Setter H. Crave, and Police Constable A. Asquith.

Across all of the railways in York, sixty-six coaches and wagons were destroyed and 436 damaged.

Bomb damage to railway sidings and goods vehicle or carriage off Leeman Road on the left looking towards Acomb. IMAGE Tim Dryland

Given the level of destruction – evident in photographs taken shortly afterwards – the Luftwaffe could be forgiven for celebrating the outcome of the raid a great success. Despite the material damage, the operational side of the railway network at York proved resilient, and L.&.N.E.R. staff had traffic moving again on all lines by the evening of April 29th, barely more than half a day after the raid had ceased.

Platform 3 of York Railway Station back in action (minus canopy) just three days after the Baedeker Raid of April 29, 1942. The platform reopened the morning after the raid. LNER official photo passed for publication in 1942 by the Censor.

Over-shot

L.&.N.E.R.’s detailed bomb map shows that the Luftwaffe were surprisingly accurate in their bombing. Of the Baedeker Raids on the five British historic cities, it was at York that the Luftwaffe was ‘most accurate’ (Collier, p.306).

It’s sometimes thought that the Luftwaffe only operated at high levels over the city during the raid. A detailed report (3004/G) from the 31st A.A. Battalion accounted for thirty-five enemy aircraft attacking the city, working in waves, and with up to twelve planes attacking at any one time. They were mainly flying at 6-8,000 ft high, but some came down to 500-1,000ft when over their targets. At such low levels, precision bombing became a realistic expectation, as seen in a detail of the bomb map produced by L.&.N.E.R. shortly after the raid. It shows the locations of individual incendiaries and high explosives across the railway’s yards and buildings – hundreds in total in the wider map.

Detail of an L&NER map showing where bombs, circled and numbered, fell across its carriage works on Holgate Road. IMAGE: L&NER

(By comparison, Whiting is right to note that R.A.F. Bomber Command launched its “1000 Bomber Raid” on German cities a month and a day after the Baedeker Raid on York. The first raid featuring 400 bombers from Yorkshire bases. Operating from 10,000 ft, they forego precision bombing and destroyed the historic cathedral city of Cologne, rendering 45,000 homeless and nearly 500 dead.)

But not all of the Luftwaffe’s bombs fell where their crews wanted them to. Bomb maps shows the strings or ‘sticks’ of bombs – usually four in a line as they fell. The risk was always that the first bomb might under- and the last bomb over-shoot its target. Communities living within sight of York’s railway infrastructure were always at risk of becoming ‘collateral damage’ from this.

Photograph of the clean-up operation at the Bar Convent, taken on 5th May 1942. IMAGE: Explore York Libraries and Archives
Photograph of the clean-up operation at the Bar Convent, taken on 5th May 1942. IMAGE: Explore York Libraries and Archives

The Bar Convent was a likely victim of this, with Blossom Street and Nunnery Lane only a few hundred yards to the east of the rail lines and works in the centre of the city. A bomb came down through a corner of the convent building on Nunnery Lane.

The bomb didn’t originally go off, but seriously injured one Sister of the convent, who found herself laying across the unexploded, ticking device. As much as she implored her fellow Sisters to keep away, they came rushing to her aid. When it detonated, the bomb killed five Sisters. They are buried in the private cemetery at the rear of the building, in the grounds of what is now All Saints School.

Photograph of the clean-up operation at the Bar Convent, taken on 5th May 1942. IMAGE: Explore York Libraries and Archives
Photograph of the clean-up operation at the Bar Convent, taken on 5th May 1942. IMAGE: Explore York Libraries and Archives

Similarly, the bombs that fell in Clifton (Westminster Road ), area, Leeman Road area and around Poppleton Road – including Poppleton Road School – most likely were intended for the railways nearby.

Map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of high explosive (red), unexploded (green) and incendiary (blacky-blue) bombs in the Clifton area, where Westminster Road was particularly damaged. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.
Map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of high explosive (red), unexploded (green) and incendiary (blacky-blue) bombs in the Poppleton Road and Leeman Road areas – being so close to railway lines and buildings. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

Several high explosives fell just to the west of the York-Scarborough railway line in the Bootham and Clifton area – causing significant damage and causalities including several deaths.

Map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of high explosive (red), unexploded (green) and incendiary (blacky-blue) bombs in that fell just to the west of the York to Scarborough railway line. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

The dropping of other high explosives, such as the stick of four bombs across Fulford Barracks, which killed six soldiers, and bombs that fell along Grants Avenue in Fulford, were likely to be intended as targeted at York’s military infrastructure.

Map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of a ‘stick’ of four high explosive bombs across the barracks. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.
Map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of a ‘stick’ of four high explosive bombs across Grants ?Avenue, Fulford, just to the south of Fulford Barracks, the likely intended target. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

Similarly, the bomb that fell on Mansfield Street in the Foss Islands area was highly likely intended for the gas works in Heworth or Foss Island Power Station. A German pilot of a downed aircraft during the raid later told British Military Intelligence that his instructions had been to target the gas works (which he failed to do).

Foss Islands in the 1920s, showing entrance to Mansfield Street on far left, and with power station in the background. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.
Detail of map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of a high explosive bomb on Mansfield Street, Foss Island area. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.
Detail of map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of a high explosive bombs on the Water Lane water works and the old Poppleton Sugar Beet Factory. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

The bombing of the Poppleton Sugar Beet Factory and the waterworks near Acomb landing, were self-explanatory as targets, but the locations of where the high explosives were dropped are harder to account for: across Scarcroft and South Bank, including four across the Nunthorpe estate; and four across fields near Beckfield Lane, Acomb.

Detail of map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of high explosive bombs in red across the South Bank and Scarcroft area, and one unexploded bomb (in green). IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.
Detail of map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of four high explosive bombs behind Beckfield Lane, Acomb. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

Inside the City Walls, its was the use of incendiaries that the Luftwaffe chose to use. If they were hoping the historic city would ‘catch’ – just as it had done at Coventy in November 1940 – and in doing so revenge the loss of the German historic cities of Lübeck and Rostock, then they were to be disappointed. York has had and continues to have many timber-framed building, but these were mostly stone or brick fronted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and they are far less in number and, crucially, concentration than was the case in the historic city of Coventry when it was bombed. It meant that individual buildings in the heart of the city took hold, and a very few small clusters of them, leading to destruction, but these were the exception.

If scale was not the outcome of the incendiary attack on the historic city centre, this doesn’t mean that all iconic buildings escaped. The Medieval Guildhall and St Michael Le Grand nearby were two such high-profile buildings to be destroyed.

Whiting notes that the Guildhall had only recently become the oldest guildhall in the country, following London’s guildhall had become a victim of the 1940 blitz and burnt to the ground. York Guildhall was to suffer the same fate. York Guildhall’s roof was itself brand new, having been paid for by subscription and installed in 1939 to replace historic roof timbers that had succumbed to deathwatch beetle.

The 11th-century St Martin Le Grand and the nearby Press office building also caught fire at the same time. Fortunately no lives were lost in these buildings.

A former sorting shed of the Central Post Office next to the Guildhall was where the Royal Observers Corps were based, under the supervision of Mr. T Wilson. As Whiting points out, it was ‘effectively York’s war room’. Being so close, the Guildhall fire greatly hampered the coordination of Civil Defence of the city – as detailed below.


Challenging times

1,104 ARP Wardens in York were involved on the night of the raid. The Reports of each Ward were written-up by their respective Ward Head Warden and based on the notes they recorded at the time of the Baedeker Raid. Details of the A.R.P. Wardens’ reports, on a Ward by Ward basis, can be read here.

While each of York’s Wards was unique in its experience of the raid, several common themes run across many of their experience:

Lack of water hampered efforts to put out incendiaries, leading to extensive fires and they then attracting returning high explosive bombing. There was a similar complaint from the Superintendant at York County Hospital, complaining ‘The failure of water services made temporary difficulties in the theatres and wards’. Additional lives were possibly lost and put at risk from this. The water mains, which were only slightly affected by bombing, were so taxed in areas with a high concentration of incendiary bombs by over-use as to be almost useless. This was particularly so where numerous fires had taken hold. Static water supplies in the city were, instead, ‘extensively used, and proved their value’ according to a report after the raid.

Lack of Messengers: A.R.P. Wardens often felt there was a lack of messengersor despatch riders to draw upon for giving and receiving information. Messengers were often teenagers, moving on foot or bicycle, or men and women as dispatch riders on motorcycles. They were expected to convey messages to and from the main Warden post to subsidiary posts in the Ward – usually about half a dozen in each. A provincial city such as York, operated in a dual system of telephones and telegrams – with shops and offices using the former, but not all residents having their own telephone line. During the raid, messengers were anticipated as a localised addition to the otherwise use of the telephone system.

The problem was that most of the city’s telephone lines went down early in the raid, at about 3.30am. It meant that each Ward and A.R.P. post was effectively cut-off and isolated from what else was happening in the city, and calling for support they would need or could offer elsewhere. Suddenly, messengers were crucial to the operation of the Civil Defence response to the raid. But either there were too few messengers to allow this or they were too far stretched – requiring them to travel further, such as to Control Headquarters based at the Guildhall until incendiaries took hold and put it out of action, or to one of the city’s three Rescue Party Depots in Foss Islands, Scarcroft, or Beckfield Lane, Acomb.

A Special Report on Communications was written shortly after the raid by George Shearing, a 32-year-old A.R.P. Head Warden in the city. It concedes that there was a breakdown in communications during the raid, with no instructions coming in from Control Headquarters on the need to send Rescue Parties to ‘incidents’ were bombs had trapped or killed people or to secure buildings or other key infrastructure from fire.

Shortly after the telephone ‘went “off”‘ around 3.30am, Shearing concluded that the Dispatch Riders and messengers, who had otherwise been assisting the regular Fire Service in combating the fire at the Guildhall, suddenly became ‘then the only means of maintaining communication with the services’

Shearing sent a dispatch rider was from his Rescue Party depot in Scarcroft to the Guildhall so as to maintain communications. In his own words – ‘I realised that I could do nothing useful at Scarcroft Road in these circumstances and decided to go to Control Headquarters’ instead. As he did, a bomb explosion wrenched the door he was opening to leave out of his grasp. He was further delayed by a solider who entered the depot ‘in a very hysterical state, stating that there were people trapped in Nunthorpe Road [nearby] and wanting to know what we were going to do about it’. For the remaining time of the raid, Shearing was forced to traverse to and from the Guildhall, which he found blazing away when he finally arrived. Then, in failing to get any information there, went, instead, to Fulford Barracks “to gain information on the situation there”, following a string of four high-explosive bombs having fallen. At the barracks, he was told by Colonel Huttonback “that they could deal with the situation themselves”. Shearing concluded his report on communications by reporting, ‘I still could not get a list of Rescue incidents, or any information regarding Rescue Parties.’

With the Control Room out of action due to the fire at the Guildhall, the Mansion House was used instead, and worked effectively. With the assistance of the military’s Colonel Grime, a line was established from there to the services at the Foss Islands Depot, and was in operation by daybreak on the 29th April. This was a successful response to the challenges of the night, but questions would need to be asked about the fragility of the communications system if hampered to such an extent by a break in the telephone exchange, which was not uncommon in serious bombing raids. Also, choosing the Guildhall as a prestigious, symbolic and central site for Control Headquarters was understandable, but its feature of medieval timbers always made it a risk to the Luftwaffe’s use of incendiary bombs, as proved to be the case. The back-up site for the Control Headquarters was designated as St Peter’s School in Clifton. But this had happened to be also hit in the raid, with both Housemasters’ houses being struck by incendiaries according to Whiting. It left the civil-defense operation highly dependent, arguably needlessly so, on the Mansion House to step in as a third option.

Shelters were highly effective in saving lives. Mr. E. Hardisty, for the Holgate Ward commented ‘Domestic shelters were well used [in Holgate] and they stood the test very well. Houses falling on them, [but] nobody was injured any shelter’.

Reflecting on his experience of his Acomb Ward, Ward Head Warden Harold P. Richardson commented that ‘[o]ne thing is evident, if people take shelter they stand a very good chance of surviving even from bombs which fall very close to them. Anderson shelters within 10 yards of bomb craters were intact and occupants uninjured’.

Conduct of civilians: reporting on the bombing incidents at Chatsworth Terrace and Amberley Street off Poppleton Road, Deputy Head Warden, A. J. Hudson commended the local ‘people of the district’ in assisting ‘in every possible way. All through the raid the people’s courage was deserving of the highest praise, in spite of the great losses sustained by many.


Incendiary assault

Damaged caused by mass use of incendiaries in the Baedeker Raid was only too evident by dawn on the 29th April.

With too many potential fires to deal with at once, many took hold and soon caused substantial fires that often damaged adjoining buildings. The National Fire Service received reports of 58 fires, including 9 of a more or less serious nature – although the extent of fires across the city was evidently considerably more than this.

A ‘List of Premises Struck by Incendiary Bombs’ in the City of York shows the scale and breadth of the damage, with near-whole streets destroyed in the Holgate and Clifton areas.

Detail of map made by City of York shortly after the Baedeker Raid showing the location of a high explosive bomb (red smudge) that entirely destroyed Pickering Terrace off Newborough Street and behind the old football ground in Bootham. IMAGE: York Explore Libraries & Archive.

In the case of Pickering Terrace, off Newborough Street near then old football ground in Bootham, a high explosive bomb destroyed the whole, short terrace of eight houses for ever – and killed three people: 7-year-old June Leeming and her mother, Doris at No.4, and their neighbour at No.6, Katherine Cooper. (A smudgy red dot on the City of York bomb map recorded shortly after the raid hardly does justice to the scale and totality of the destruction it caused.)

Even streets that received only slight or severe damage to properties usually saw some damage to near all properties from incendiaries. Other areas, such as Fishergate, Micklegate, Monkgate, Scarcroft, and the Knavesmire could simply complete their Incendiary Bomb damage sheets with the word ‘Nil’ – hardly doing justice to the sense of relief in escaping so lightly when neighbouring communities were fire-fighting or combing through the ash and rubble in search of people and possessions.

‘List of Premises Struck by Incendiary Bombs’ – covering the Holgate Ward’s Garfield Terrace, where there were many fires, damage and destruction.
‘List of Premises Struck by Incendiary Bombs’ – covering the Knavesmire Ward, where there were none.

In the city centre, a single line accounting for the damage done to the historic Guildhall is a pitiful sight, and must have been a very sad moment when the author wrote ‘destroyed’ in the corresponding ‘Damage Caused to Building’ column.


Rescue Parties

The cities Rescue & Decontamination Services were served by three depots in the city: Foss Islands Road, Acomb and Scarcroft, and with a total force of 241 men and women.

One of the most important roles of the A.R.P. during the raid was to report ‘rescue incidents’ as they came in. Incidents related to people potentially trapped in buildings damaged or destroyed by the bombing. It would allow rescue parties to then be sent to see what could be done, and give them any information on how many people they were seeking in the rubble or blazing building – often cross-referencing names associated with properties from the Information Bureau based at York’s library on Museum Street. Incidents were closed once everyone was accounted for – dead or alive.

Each incident is unique in its own right, even if common to them was a story of personal tragedy, often human loss, and occasionally tales of wretched good or bad luck as to whether the occupant would be a casualty, fatality or physically unscathed. It is impossible to choose one incident over another to focus on. Therefore, in the weeks following the 80th anniversary of the Baedeker Raid, all 20 of the incident reports highlighted in the image above will be added here.

From reading across the incidents, a few themes stand out, and concur often with the themes coming out of the A.R.P. Head Wardens’ reports.


i. Working well … so carry on

Firstly, despite the chaos, which of course was understandable given the destructive element of the raid and the fear and panic it generated, the official ‘rescue parties’ often arrived at the scene to find that rescue and recovery work was already being conducted by a medley of soldiers, policemen, .AR.P. wardens and members of the public. This was the case at Pickering Terrace, were the makeshift rescuers were considered to be ‘working well’ by the official rescue party once it arrived, and so told to continue to do so perhaps with a bit of professional advice for good measure.

Elsewhere, by the time a Rescue Party had arrived from Scarcroft Depot at a large crater and demolished houses on Nunthorpe Grove, the debris had already been cleared by civilians, wardens and police, making their task all the more easier.

York’s Civil Defence Report on Operations during the Raid described this assistance as ‘mutual aid’ – and acknowledged that it was widely provided. Benfield and Hutchinson’s confidential report on the civil defence services conduct also gave thanks to ‘large numbers of the citizens in general’ for doing ‘their utmost to deal with the consequences of the raid and to alleviate the suffering and distress caused to less fortunate citizens.’

This can-do attitude and helping each other at a very localised level was also seen in billeting arrangements. The confidential report into the raid written by the Civil Defence noted that a ‘large number of the homeless had apparently made their own arrangements for accommodation with relatives or friends’. (Hovingham Lodge, for examaple, became the billeting place for 12 children and 25 war workers made homeless).

Rescue Parties from further afield, such as Leeds, Hull, Malton and Thirsk also assisted. Soldiers were sometimes first on the scene due to having been billeted in homes and properties close by to where the bombs fell, and so acting as much under their own volition rather than military orders.

In a Report on Operations during the Raid made by the City of York Civil Defence on 4th May, while ‘the turnout of all services was given an underwhelming acknowledgement of being ‘satisfactory’, the work in dealing with casualties was described as ‘excellent’, with ‘[e]very casualty living when located was extricated alive’ and even ‘[c]orpses were correctly labelled in practically every case’. The tally for the work of the Rescue Parties was 37 rescued alive; 52 recovered dead, with 52 civilian casualties admitted to the General Hospital and 49 to the County Hospital. Of those admitted to the General Hospital, ‘7 were take from a passenger train’ – highly likely to have been the Edinburgh express train caught up in the bombing of the railway station until it was pulled out of the station by shunter engines.

The range of injuries to those who were still hospitalised in the General Hospital by the 4th May gives a shocking insight into the impact high explosives and incendiary bombs could have on the human body. In a report by the Medical Superintendent of the New General Hospital, glass splinter and crush injuries were identified as the most common. The former were most likely from shattered windows caused by high explosives, and crush injuries caused by collapsing buildings or being hurtled into objects form a bomb blast. The Medical Superintendent stated: ‘[o]f the cases still in Hospital there are four injuries to eyes … due to glass …, two fractures pelves, two other serious fractures and three minor fractures. Other injuries … [were] of flesh wounds mostly of the scalp, multiple wounds due to glass splinters and two due to bomb splinters. There were no bullet wounds, but four persons suffered from crush injuries following the collapse of buildings’. A Report from the County Hospital on the 2nd May also attested to ‘[a]n unexpectedly large percentage of injuries were head cases’.

Doctors at the County Hospital were aided by stretcher-bearers from Rowntree’s, and a number of nurses who happened to visiting York from Derby and elsewhere.

200 homeless people were fed and accommodated at the city’s Rest Centres on the day of the raid. Particular demand was placed on the Rest Centre at St Barnabas’ Church of England School, which had to act as both Emergency Meals Centre and a Rest Centre to accommodate ‘a large number of the population of the Leeman Road area owing to the damage to the neighbouring Centres, such as the Rest Centre at the Honesty Girls’ Club on Stamford Street. After its evacuation as a Rest Centre, St Barnabas’ ‘was immediately used as an Emergency Feeding Centre, supplying a mid-day meal to an average of 300 person, and on one day to 500 persons’, and with breakfast and teas served from mobile canteens. 300 people had to be evacuated from the Leeman Road area to Lidgate Grove.

Leeman Rd area including bomb damage to Hanover St. IMAGE Tim Dryland

The provision of meals more generally came from three British Restaurants – in Aldwark, St. Chad’s and Burton Stone Lane, which also supplied Emergency Meals to then homeless and Civil Defence services working in the city and taken by mobile canteens. Of these mobile canteens, these included ‘three Ford Gift Vans’, recently presented to the City’ as part of 350 vans given as a gift by Mr. Henry Ford and his son Mr Edsel B. Ford for the Women’s Voluntary Service.

Two of the 350 mobile food vans gifted by Mr Henry Ford and his son Edsel, for the Women’s Voluntary Service, and used as Emergency Feeding Vans. York had three in use for the Baedeker Raid, although the vans here were active in Reading and brought into service only four days prior to the York raid. IMAGE: Reading Museum, REDMG : 1980.36.A519.2

Aside from food, there was a strong need for advice and general welfare provision. This was provided via the Administrative Centre at No.1 Museum Street. Between the raid and the Friday 8th May, when the centre was closed, 4,663 people were processed through it, and ‘were attended by the Assistance Board [at No.32 St. Mary’s], National Registration Departments, Food Office (for rations cards only) [at York Public Library], Repairs and Salvage Departments, Ministry of Pensions, Legal Adviser and the Women’s Voluntary Services, and the Casualty and General Information Bureau [also at the Public Library]’, and with additional thousands of general enquires dealt with.

Such a list of “needs” resulting from the bombing gives a real sense of just how much the State was needing to “step in” to provide for a general public who were potentially homeless, without possessions – including “papers”, and hungry all because of bad luck in having their home destroyed by a foreign enemy.

Such a situation came about in a time when it was debated if its was the role of the State or the individual to provide for themselves and their families. It had fallen on the individual traditionally, but the extreme outcomes of the war on the civilian population was increasingly requiring the State to intercede and provide for large swathes of population, especially in towns and cities suffering in the Blitz. Food prices were stabilised from December 1939 – and subsidised for milk and meals, and supplementary pensions had been introduced in 1940.

These changes, and the need for them resulting from the war effort and damage, help explain why at the very time of the Baedeker Raid, an elderly civil servant called William Beveridge was preparing his Social Insurance and Allied Services (Cmd 6404) report. This unassuming sounding report, which was published to great public interest in November 1942, provided the blueprint for a social policy in post-war Britain that we know know as the Welfare State: a ‘cradle to the grave’ social programme that among other proposals called for a free national health service. (Despite being victorious in the War, Winston Churchill lost out to Clement Attlee and his Labour Government in the first post-war general election in July 1945, as Attlee favoured the adoption of the Beveridge Report whereas Churchill opposed it; people knew what they wanted and it is easy to see why the impact of the war on civilian life brought about such a radical change in policy).

1942 Beveridge Report. IMAGE: UK Parliament

As much as any British cities of the day, and bearing in mind the poverty recorded only a few decades earlier in the city featured in Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty, A Study of Town Life (1901), York had communities already living well below the “bread line”, and many of them must have featured among the 2,000 ‘cases the Assistance Board gave immediate help in the form of cash and clothing coupons’.

In total approximately 1,660 people were billeted in homeless hostels and houses due to the raids, with recently acquired emergency billeting centres brought into place for older people at 107 Carr Lane, Acomb, and 59 Huntington Road, and Hostels at 3, 73 & 74 Bishopthorpe Road. (Hostels at Linton Lodge, “Inglecroft”, Heslington Lane, 6 St. Peter’s Grove and 23 Grosvenor Terrace were damaged in the raid, and the latter two so seriously to be of no further use.)

Of less severe cases, by the 21st May there were 7,600 reported properties damaged in varying degrees. By that date, the city’s repair force, assisted by 230 workmen drafted into the City for other areas, had carried out temporary repairs to make roofs and windows watertight for 4,600 houses. More permanent repairs to buildings, ‘to their original condition’, was divided up to three of the largest building firms in the city.


ii. Accounting (for all)

Secondly, there was a strong desire to ‘account’: for the killed and wounded – in numbers and locations, the missing, damaged buildings, unexploded bombs, the location of incendiary bomb clusters, … the list is many.

Such levels of information was seen as crucial for the smoothness of the civil-defence operation, and the destruction of the telephone system in particular, but also the fire at the Control Centre at the Guildhall had floored many Civil Defence personnel, preventing and delaying them from compiling lists to be sent by dispatch riders.

Incident reports of the Rescue Parties convey conflicting reports of who and how many people were trapped in the rubble, and how this problematised whether to continue to commit resources to one rescue site rather than redeploy them elsewhere and potentially safe more lives. George Shearing admits as such in a Repair & Salvage Department report of rescue work carried out during and after the raid. He recorded that “[i]n many cases the [ARP] Wardens were not able to supply information regarding the number of persons in residence, or the number of persons who had been recovered, and in consequence I gathered information form other sources which were many and varied and in many cases conflicting. It was only by the utmost perseverance, and sometimes by extraordinary good luck, that I was able to gather sufficient evidence to be satisfied the Rescue operations should be continued or the incident closed’.

At No.48 Bootham, for example, soldiers were convinced that Major Backhouse and his family as the occupants were present at the time of an apparent “direct hit with a medium-sized H(igh) E(xplosive)”, which had demolished the home. In fact, at the Information Bureau, it was thought Mrs Backhouse was sheltering with Dr. Sykes, whom lived opposite. Making enquires, George Shearing was told “that the whole family were safe. They had simply walked across the road after scrambling out of their own [demolished] house and gone to Dr. Sykes’ residence.”

With an admittedly more tragic outcome, there was a case of a mistaken identity in the search for a missing  Auxiliary Territorial Service woman at No.21 Nunthorpe Grove in South Bank. Five survivors were pulled from the wreckage of two homes – Nos. 19 & 21 but the 21-year-old A.T.S. woman, who was stationed at Fulford Barracks remained allusive. While it was reported that she was last seen ‘switching off [a] stove in [a] back kitchen’ there, the Rescue Party Leader was tipped off that a woman with the same name had been accounted for at the mortuary, potentially drawing a close to the incident on Nunthorpe Grove. But it turned out to be an unfortunate case of mistaken identities. The dead woman at the mortuary did have the same name, but was clearly thirty years older and was found in her home just off Shipton Road in Rawcliffe on the other side of the city. The body of the A.T.S woman was tragically found nearly a week after the raid at the bottom of the crater at Nunthorpe Grove.

Routinely the city’s mortuary, overseen by Superintendent Mr Eric Sykes, one of untold heroes of the raid’s resilience, became the source of concise information. The Butter Market in Kent Street was the emergency mortuary. Government instruction of 1939 was to use papier-mache caskets for raid victims, but, according to Whiting, York considered this undignified and instead had all undertakers in the city to keep two timber coffins in reserve in case of a severe raid. The number of fatalities will have still required for more coffins than what were in reserve, and the ‘mass burial’ plot set aside at York Cemetery under quiet instruction from York Corporation was not called upon. All the same, Whiting tells us that the mortuary was a scene of carnage that morning. The Report on Operations during the Raid commended their work ‘in this unpleasant task … carried through in a most satisfactory manner’ despite the work being ‘a great physical strain’.

In another sordid and yet profound detail of the necessary administration of the civil defense provision, Whiting notes that York citizens would be required to go the library on Museum Street as the Emergency administrative centre and consult lists of the dead that were posted up there.


iii. Effectiveness of Shelters

Thirdly, the incidents show how effective air-raid shelters could be. At Nunthorpe Grove, where a large high explosive destroyed four properties and formed a larger crater, people were found safe in their Anderson Shelters, but a ‘little worse for their experience’, despite the lip of the crater being only ten yards away.

George Shearing concludes in his report of rescue work carried out during and after the raid, that ‘[t]ime after time it was found that persons have been saved by shelters. The Morrison table shelters, particularly, struck me as being remarkably safe, even when a building has collapsed on top of them’. A family of three were unharmed under their Morrison Table shelter at No.47 Westminster Road, despite a large high explosive bomb making a direct hit there. The write-up from the report of this incident concludes: ‘There seems no doubt that the Morrison Table shelter saved three people from being killed, or at least from being severely injured, as the whole building collapsed onto the shelter’.

Sadly, observations were also required when structured shelters were not used, such as the fate of a mother and daughter taking shelter ‘under the stairs’ in their home on Mansfield Street that received a direct hit. The daughter was rescued, but the mother didn’t survive.


Unprepared &unprotected?

The Raids Over York project has avoided making a judgement of the civil-defence performance, or that of the Luftwaffe, in the eleven individual raids.

Whiting argued that the military let the city down through a lack of air defence on the night, and that they should have known an attack was coming and been prepared. He asked why there were no barrage balloons or Ack-Ack anti-aircraft guns in the city? The abandonment of the city by the military has become part of the narrative of the raid, and so requires closer examination.

Certainly the Luftwaffe thought the city was unprotected during the raid, at least for the start of it. The pilot of a Ju-88 bomber, downed during the raid, told British Military Intelligence that he ‘was agreeably surprised by the weakness of the A.A. defences’ and accordingly ‘reduced height from 11,000 to 6,000ft.

The heroic story of Yves Mahé, a ‘Free French Forces pilot with the R.A.F., is well known to the people of York, with a Civic Trust blue plaque unveiled near St Martin Le Grand on Coney Street in May 2014 to honour his bravery. His own ‘Pilot’s personal combat report’ can be read below, but in brief, as part of 253 Squadron based at R.A.F. Hibaldstow, one of four R.A.F. stations tasked to protect York, Mahé, in Hawker Hurricane fighter, saw York ablaze from a distance and interceded, shooting down at least one bomber.

Yves Mahe – signed off as the ‘Free French’, but with Sad.253 on the night of the Raid, wrote his account of his action for his ‘Pilot’s personal combat report’.

Mahé brave intervention has traditionally been viewed as near-single-handedly chasing the attacking Luftwaffe away from the city. It was an uplifting story for a city just bombed and amongst other grim military news for British forces overseas. For his action, Mahé was given a civic reception at the Mansion House in York (with cucumber sandwiches, according to Whiting) and later presented with the Croix de Guerre by General de Gaulle.

The reports of 10th Anti-Aircraft Division across the wider area – of which aerial combat was by nature of speed of movement was fought – presents a more complex story.

Between 1.52 and 5.17am, 25 fighters were operating in the area, including 12 Spitfires, 11 Hurricanes and 2 Havocs. ‘R.A.F claim[ed] four e(enemy) a(ircraft) destroyed’: a Dornier 217 ‘crashed and was burnt out 6 miles west of Malton’, with the crew captured; ‘one Junkers 88 crashed in York’, and ‘two Heinkel H.E.III’s crashed between York and the North Sea’. (The reports of 7th Anti-Aircraft Division claim another Junkers JU-88 was destroyed out over the North Sea).

The Intelligence Officer of No.133 (Eagle) Squadron of the R.A.F. based at Kirton-in-Lindsay detailed how half his squadron was ‘ordered on Fighternight [duties] over York, and the other half on various Fighter Boxes in the vicinity’. Pilot Officer Doorly ‘had a combat with a Do.217 and claims having damaged it. He also saw anther but lost contact with it before he could fire. It is assumed that his glycol tank was hit by return fire from the [enemy aircract] as his temp[erature] rose alarmingly … to 140 degrees … and before he could be vectored home, his motor cut altogether. He baled out about 6 miles S.W. of Church Fenton and landed safely in a ploughed field. There were no other combats. The pilots on Fighternight had an excellent view of fires burning fiercely in York.’

Intelligence from 253 Squadron reported ‘Forty Hun aircraft attacked York and district’, and of these, in their Hurricanes, W/O Y Mahe destroyed what he thought was a He III ‘but later confirmed as a Ju 88’; Sgt W. Maguire believed he’d destroyed a Dornier 217, but ‘this was later allowed as damaged’; F/O H. D. Seal brought down what was believed to be a He III. The Operations Record Book records: ‘F/O Deal, W/O Mahe and Sgt Maguire’s claims were allowed by Group at first, but later in the day some doubts arose as to the He IIIs claimed by F/O Seal and Sgt Maguire.

Images above: ‘Detail of Work Carried Out’, report of Squadron 253’s activities over York on 29th April 1942.

It is hard not to think that despite the destruction, RAF personnel put a lot of effort into disentangling who had shot at what and the fate of their actions. It reads at times as a squabble over the tallying up of a ‘shooting party’ or who got the most runs in a game of cricket.

The reality is that it was men in one set of planes trying to shoot down men in another set of planes. The cricket scoring masks over the human dynamics of these activities – not just the bravery on both sides, but also the tragedy that was likely to befall the loser in the contest. The Ju-88 likely shot down by Yves Mahé crashed at approximately 3.30am near Crockey Hill, 3.5 miles south of York, hitting the ground, in Mahé’s estimation, at 300 mph. Intelligence reports, including from the crew of the Ju-88 who had bailed out and survived, tell that they had set off at 1.00am from its base in Leeuwarden in occupied Netherlands. It was the sixth time it had taken part in the ‘Blitz’ raids over Britain. It was during their second run over the city that they were attacked by Mahé in his Hurricane. Those onboard the German bomber were Pilot Lieutenant Werner Boy, Observer Unteroffiziers Karl Kügler, Wireless Operator Gefreiter Willi Schindler and Gunner Gefreiter Heinz Müller. Lt. Boy died in the crash and his grave was initially made at Barmby Moor but later transfered to Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery; his fellow crew were taken prisoner. (Further details of the fate of the Luftwaffe can be found at the excellent Miltary Histories webpage)

Lieutenant Werner Boy’s grave at Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery. IMAGE: Wing-Commander Newbould.

Photograph taken after the raid of the tail of downed Ju-88 at Crockey Hill (a serial 1334 is marked along with three ‘kills’ of shipping).


What impact?

How serious was the impact of the raid on York? It is a question which would very much depend on who you were asking, and if you were asking form a military or civilian point of view (although admittedly both realms were blurred during the war years).

On the success of the raid from a German Reich point of view, German News Broadcasts reported thousands of bombs dropped on York, with many explosions, especially south of the river, and the city’s gasworks destroyed.

For the British military, the 10th Anti-Aircraft Division’s note of the attack was curt to the point of dismissive, simply reporting: ‘The L.N.E.R Station was badly damaged and some warehouses were burnt out’. The Intelligence Officer of No.133 (Eagle) Squadron of the R.A.F. based at Kirton-in-Lindsay was less circumspect: ‘Big Blitz in York!’ he wrote.

The more detailed report by the localised 31st A.A. Brigade accounts of the damage as ’20 incidents’:

  • ‘Severe damage by H(igh) E(plosives) and I(incendiary) B(tombs) to Railway Station.
  • ‘Guildhall destroyed by fire. (Control Room)’
  • ‘St Peters School (alternative Control Room), damaged’
  • ‘Serious damage to telephone exchange’
  • ‘Damage to water, Gas and Electricity mains, also to telephone cables’
  • ‘CF. 106(or 8?)B …. machined gunned from 3,000 to 4,000ft at 3.15 hrs.’
  • CF. 013A machined gunned by a J.U. 88 which it illuminated for 30 secs, flying at 500ft at 3.25 hrs.’
  • ‘Communications from York 9 and 10 R.O.C. Centres to CF were put out of action’.
  • ‘Lines from CF to CF. 01, 04, and 06 areas were put out of action’.

For the civil-defence operations, Benfield and Hutchinson’s confidential report is more positive and praising, with it ‘to be said without hesitation that on the whole the services and the citizens in general acquitted themselves well. It is to suggested that no mistakes were made, nor that there could be no improvements; the experience gained has been … utilised in improving the organisation where it has been shown to be necessary. It would be invidious to single out any particular service or personnel for special thanks, and the emergency Committee desire us to place on record their deep appreciation of the manner in which everybody, paid and unpaid, including large numbers of the citizens in general, did their utmost to deal with the consequences of the raid and to alleviate the suffering and distress caused to less fortunate citizens.’

It is a great shame that Benfield and Hutchinson’s confidential report was never made public, being a fitting and, as way of an assessment, mostly accurate recognition of the effort of everyday people of York, be they civil defense personnel or not.



With thanks to Wing-Commander Newbould for making available his detailed archive research to the Raids Over York project team.

To those who have contributed their memories of the raid and its legacy, including Brian Rusling […and with many more to soon be included and thanked]

Thanks to Luke and Corey at Danesgate Community School, York, for contacting the Project Team and advising on the need for a key correction on the chronology of events and naming of the main raid.

Thanks to information drawn from a rich body of published and online resources, including:

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