Victims of the blitz - Norwich's darkest hour

DEREK JAMES

The old city of Norwich seemed peaceful in the moonlight. Suddenly the silence was broken by the wail of sirens, the distant throb of engines, the menacing roar of aircraft growing louder and louder. As the lights went out across the city a deadly airborne convoy was already on its way. Its mission? To destroy as much of Norwich as possible. The date was Monday, April 27, 1942.

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Names compiled by Roy Scott, of the Norfolk Family History Society

DEATH TOLL

1940: Killed - 60. Injured - 190.
1941: Killed - 21. Injured - 104.
1942: Killed - 258. Injured - 784.
1943: Killed - 1. Injured - 14.

Stung by the increasing severity of British air raids over Nazi Germany, Hitler’s Luftwaffe High Command decided to strike back. They pored over Baedeker’s tourist guide to Britain, and over two nights in April 1942 they set out to destroy as much of Norwich as they could. These were the Baedeker Raids.

In previous months there had been a lull in enemy action over the city and there were those who had started to ignore the sirens and not bother to seek shelter. That night they did so at their peril. The shadow of death was being cast over the city.

A week of living hell that would change the face of Norwich forever bringing chaos and destruction was about to start. Life would never be the same again. The deep rhythmic note of the powerful engines in the sky was ominous. Between 25 and 30 planes were over the city.

Parachute flares lit up the city and once the attack had begun there could be no doubt as to its gravity. First there was the mechanical scream of heavy missiles hurtling down on streets and roofs, yards and gardens. This was followed by shattering explosions, usually in series, as the stick of bombs took effect.

At the same time a rain of silver fire indicated the course of the incendiaries, and in a short space of time, the orange glow of great fires could be seen across the fields and villages surrounding Norwich. The city was on fire.

Bethel Street after the bombers left

The emergency services struggled to cope as the raid carried on. Rows of houses were destroyed, factories were burning. For over two hours the Luftwaffe pounded Norwich dropping 185 heavy bombs weighing over 50 tons. At 1.25am the all-clear sounded.

Then the grim rescue work started. Mountains of rubble had to be dug and shifted. Official records say 162 people had been killed and nearly 600 others badly hurt – many with appalling injuries. Hundreds more were homeless and even the mortuary had been put out of action. Few people had running water as the mains had been smashed.

By some miracle all the landmarks survived – the cathedral, the castle, St Peter Mancroft and the new City Hall.

The destitute and the bereaved, grief-stricken and bewildered began queuing. Over 14,000 emergency ration cards were issued. And so many only had the clothes they stood up in and they could not get any more because so many shops had also been destroyed.

But the people had little time to regain their senses. Smoke was still coming from the rubble when the bombers returned. At almost the same time on Wednesday night, April 19, 1942, the bombers were back. This time there was some attempt at defence but the anti-aircraft fire did little to stop the attack which resulted in, according to official figures, 69 deaths and badly-
injuring nearly 90 people.

The effects of the blitz on Rampant Horse Street

About 112 high explosive bombs with a higher number of incendiaries weighing about 45 tons dropped across the city, flattening huge areas. Eye-witnesses said the second attack – although 45 minutes shorter, and claiming fewer lives – was more spectacular and devastating than the first one.

“Those of us who drove through the blazing streets had an unpleasant reminder of old days of Ypres and Armentieres (First World War)” wrote Ralph Mottram, author of Assault Upon Norwich. "The light of flames flickering through jagged gaps in familiar walls, and reflected in pools of water, the crunch of broken glass and plaster beneath wheels and feet, the roar of the conflagration and the shouted orders and warnings were ominously reminiscent,” he said.

Following the raids on Tuesday, Wednesday and a smaller one on Thursday, guns and barrage balloons were moved into position in and around Norwich. But by then it was too late. The city was still smouldering. Water shortages handicapped the fire-fighting. The electricity and sewerage systems had been hit. The gas company was struggling to cope.

The emergency and relief services were stretched to the limits, and at nights women and children pushing prams, barrows or home-made carts containing what was left of their possessions headed out of the city to sleep in the fields. For days vans equipped with loudspeakers toured the streets giving out advice about boiling water, and where they could get help. They also appealed for the able-bodied to remain at their posts.

Then it was time for the people of Norwich to bury their dead…this was our darkest hour. We will remember them.

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