At the beginning of World War II Exeter was well provided with service industries such as shops, banks and entertainment venues, but it was not a major industrial centre, and so was not really targeted in early bombing raids. Instead it was seen as a safe place in which people evacuated to from England's more strategically important cities.

Pre-war Exeter (Historic England)

It wasn't until the Baedecker Raids in 1942 that Exeter was hit badly. These raids were named after a German language tourist guide to Britain, which Hitler used to choose five of the most beautiful British cities to target, in retaliation for the destruction of the German medieval town of Lubeck.

Exeter was the first city to be hit, followed by Bath, Canterbury, Norwich and York, with the Exeter Blitz beginning in earnest on the night of 4th May 1942. Over 20 Luftwaffe bombers, using the River Exe for navigation, flew over Exeter and discharged their deadly cargo.

Over 10,000 incendiary bombs and over 170 high explosive bombs were dropped on Exeter, causing the destruction of nearly half of the densely built city centre inside the ancient Roman walls. 

Historic buildings which were lost in the Exeter Blitz included the iconic Bedford Circus (which can be seen in the image above, just below Exeter Cathedral), Deller's Cafe, large parts of the ancient High Street, areas of Magdalen Road, Globe Hotel, St Lawrence Church and St Catherine's Almshouses, which has been left in ruins as a memorial. Miraculously, Exeter Cathedral survived, despite sustaining a direct hit.

Aerial view of the bomb damage to Exeter (Historic England)

The raid killed 156 men, women and children and injured over 550, many of whom were left affected physically and mentally for life. 

Thankfully by the time of the Blitz, Exeter had hundreds of Anderson air raid shelters, which people erected themselves. An example of one of these can be found in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. There were also several thousand Morrison shelters in people's homes.

Up to 300 people could also shelter in Exeter's Underground Passages. However these were dark and cramped with only rudimentary lighting and no toilet facilities, and the sound of the bombs hitting the High Street above could clearly be heard, which would have been terrifying!

The rebuilding of Exeter took over 20 years to complete. 

While RAMM is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, visit their website for some fascinating online learning materials about the Second World War and the Exeter Blitz. 2020 also marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day. the end of the Second World War, where the guns fell silent on 8th May 1945. See how Exeter is getting involved with VE Day virtual celebrations.

Related

Exeter's Underground Passages
Historic Site
Family image in the passages

The Passages were built to house the pipes that brought clean drinking water into medieval Exeter. A guided tour of Exeter's Underground Passages is a memorable event - narrow, dark, interesting and exciting.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery - RAMM
Museum
Royal Albert Memorial Museum Queen Street Exeter

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) is one of Exeter City Council’s flagship services. RAMM is also supported using public funding by Arts Council England. Stunning displays reveal Devon and Exeter’s rich history and global connections. Exotic animals, birds and insects delight children and a changing programme of exhibitions and events means there is likely to be something different to see on every visit. Free entry gives everyone the freedom to visit many times and to stay any length of time.

Exeter Cathedral
Cathedral/Minster
Exeter Cathedral West Front

Medieval cathedral. Fine example of Gothic Decorated style. Longest unbroken stretch of Gothic vaulting in the world. Image screen on West Front, Minstrels' Gallery and tombs. Expert guided tours, trails and activities for the family

11 Comments

Comments

  1. broke
    Having seen the news this morning of the discovery of a WW2 bomb, I wonder why so large a piece of ordnance was dropped on Exeter. The BBC report 27th Feb says itis 2 metres long.
  2. Notts Blue
    Exeter was one of five historic cities targeted by the Luftwaffe in the Baedecker raids as revenge for the city of Lubeck being bombed.
  3. Fritz
    I wonder how many of us living in larger cities are blissfully unaware of explosive devices from Ww2, some 80 years ago buried in our gardens or even underneath post Ww2 houses?
  4. Mark
    Could be a Herman 1000kg. That would take out a few houses if it went off. My mum 92 says she remembers quite a few going off in London during the Blitz.
  5. Dan
    Looks like the Streatham bomb is a SC1200, a thin-case non-penetrating bomb. They were large bombs dropped early in raids to break buildings open, which would then be ignited by incendiaries, dropped mainly later in the raid.
  6. Chris R
    My mother and her parents were in Exeter during the blitz. Is this the kind of bomb she called a landmine?
  7. Snowy
    I grew up in Belle Vue Road Exmouth, as a very young child my grandmother asked me to pick some mint. I had only gone a short distance from the house when I was called back to be a saucepan to prevent me dropping the mint at which point a low flying aircraft came over strafing the house, there was still a bullet hole in the sitting room door frame, when we left in the 1950s.It is thought that this was part of 7th May 1942 raid, and the planes followed the Exe to reach their target.
  8. Doug
    Anybody offhand know what German planes would have been used to drop these very large bombs?

    Doug
  9. Prior
    Looks likely from Heinkel He 111 cos of bomb SC1000

    Regards
  10. Swagman
    I have a Messasmit 109 wing flat made out of titanium the plane was shot down over Oakford North Devon the young pilot was arrested dads army style by my wife’s grandfather as he bailed out and landed in his field he was then taken to Tiverton police station my late father-in-law Roy a young boy at the time ran down to the wreckage along with other locals no doubt to pick up souvenirs hence I ownership of the plane wing part of which has a mechanism and metal cable that operated it I believe by foot control .
  11. Johnny
    My grandfather was killed by a bomb blast I believe in a shopping district on a Saturdag,does anybody have any details of the raid?

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