Baptism of fire - when the first Nazi bombs hit Norwich 80 years ago this week
PUBLISHED: 17:50 03 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:50 03 July 2020
Eighty years ago, Norwich found itself in the firing line of the German aerial assault on Britain for the first time. Steve Snelling unravels fact from fiction as he charts the city’s painful baptism of fire in the summer of 1940
It was the strangest of summer terms. To a boy of 13 it was, by turns, exciting, exhilarating and never less than extraordinary. The weeks passed in a whirlwind of wild rumours and weird embellishments to the school curriculum.
Sandwiched between lessons in algebra and English grammar and cricket in the shadow of the Cathedral there were air raid drills and instructions on how to extinguish fires ignited by incendiary bombs.
Some 10 months into a first year spent as a boarder at Norwich’s King Edward VI School, Derek Griffiths couldn’t help marvel at the timing. The miracle of Dunkirk was recent history, the country’s ‘finest hour’ had yet to begin and invasion was expected more or less any day.
“What a year to experience,” he noted in his diary after another night’s sleep interrupted by the wail of air-raid sirens.
As usual, it had been a false alarm, like every other warning delivered since he arrived at the school 12 days after the outbreak of war in September 1939.
The same rigmarole was repeated the next night, but then, on July 1, the threat grew more real. On the same day his class gathered in the playground to watch incendiaries being doused, Derek recorded: “Nazi aircraft came over in daylight today. They do not even wait for the protection of darkness any more…”
A little over a week later, in the afternoon of Tuesday, July 9, he headed with his classmates to Lakenham’s outdoor pool where he managed a half-mile swim, sufficient, he noted, for “a certificate”. Returning to the School House in The Close, they relaxed as usual, some listening to the wireless, others playing draughts and a couple of boys peering distractedly out of the windows on the playground side of the room.
“Suddenly”, scribbled Derek, the calm was broken by one of the watchers. “JERRIES!” he shouted, sending the rest of them scurrying to the windows.
Quick as they were, they were just too late to see the bombers as they flew “low over the city in a left-hand bank” towards the railway station and the neighbouring riverside factories.
“Less than a minute later, there were some very heavy explosions,” Derek noted. This time, he observed, “there had been no air-raid warning at all…”
His diary entry for the day ended on a sombre note: “There have been many people killed, they say. The war really has arrived.”
Eighty years on, there are a dwindling number of people alive today who can remember the city’s deadly baptism of fire. Those who witnessed the raid and its tragic consequences would never forget it, though their recollections would often become conflated and confused with the passage of time.
Almost everything about that first aerial assault has been the subject of heated debate: from the numbers and types of aircraft involved to the directions and intentions of the raiders.
Even the precise order of events has been disputed with muddled memories adding murky new layers of disagreement to an already complicated and contentious episode.
What is irrefutable, however, is that the attack, though much smaller in scale to the massed aerial assaults which had been predicted before the war, produced results and provoked a reaction out of all proportion to the number of enemy bombers employed.
The shock was profound. In spite of all the city’s preparations, the endless practices, the tried but mostly untested early warning system, a few aircraft had penetrated more than 20 miles inland in broad daylight to deliver an attack that was breathtaking in its audacity and accuracy as well as being thoroughly unnerving in the ease with which they had evaded detection and opposition of any description.
It was a significant and worrying failure that marked a grim milestone in a fitful aerial offensive that would eventually ravage and re-shape the heart of Norwich in a manner no town planner could ever have imagined.
So what do we really know about that critical first bombardment, the effects of which reverberated far beyond the city boundaries?
Well, for starters, we can say with some certainty that the attack was by design rather than by accident, albeit based on shaky intelligence, and carried out by three Dornier 17Z bombers from an as yet unidentified unit.
Enemy target maps indicate that the objectives for the Luftwaffe crews were two-fold: Air Ministry hangars near to Barnard’s Iron Works on Salhouse Road which were apparently unused at the time and the riverside Boulton & Paul complex under the misapprehension that the factory was still engaged in full-scale aircraft manufacturing when, in fact, production had been switched to the company’s Wolverhampton works four years’ earlier.
Moreover, it is clear that the sighting by schoolboys of the aircraft streaking low across the city heralded not so much the beginning of the attack but its lethal climax.
For the trail of destruction spread back in time and distance from the centre of Norwich to the north-eastern outskirts where the Sprowston Grange home of Barclays Bank director Charles Hammond found itself an unlikely first target for the raiders shortly before 5pm.
Hammond was attending a board meeting of the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital at the time, but two of his household staff, parlour maid Kathleen Le-Good and cook Iris Fortescue, had just sat down by a bay window for a spot of late afternoon tea.
A little over 40 years later, Kathleen recalled: “I’d had just one bite of a bun when there was this terrific bang.” In that moment the house shook and windows shattered, showering them with glass. “We rushed into the corridor and stood there shaking, holding on to each other. It was a terrifying experience.”
With piles of rubble barring their way to the telephone in the front hall, they scrambled outside only to find the ground around flailed by machine-gun fire and more bombs.
By some minor miracle, they escaped unharmed, but 60-year-old Kate Lovett was not so fortunate. According to one account she was fatally injured when one of the bombs demolished the nearby Grange Cottage as she lay sheltering unavailingly beneath a table having ushered a pet dog to safety.
Quite why the Grange was picked out is unclear, though Kathleen and Iris were among several local people to speculate that the intended target was Sprowston Hall which had been taken over by the military.
Either way, the attack was most likely a deliberate diversion to draw any opposition away from the main objectives to which the two other bombers were headed at an estimated height of little more than 600 feet.
Following the line of the Salhouse Road and skirting the edge of the old Mousehold aerodrome, one of the Dorniers sped over the Air Ministry hangars and adjoining iron works, dropping its entire payload of high explosive bombs in what one historian has called “an extremely accurate and damaging attack”.
Four workers were killed and more injured in the blasts that tore through Barnard’s before the two bombers joined up again over Mousehold for a final run-in past the Quebec Road water tower.
The final unopposed attack was witnessed by many who, in the absence of any air-raid warning, mistook them for ‘friendly’ aircraft. It was a mistake quickly realised as one of the Dorniers released a stick of bombs that burst in a ragged line across the Thorpe Railway Station engine sheds, the Boulton & Paul Works, either side of the Kingsway pub and, most infamously, in the branches of trees close by the Black Tower on Carrow Hill.
Pat Woodward could scarcely believe what was happening. Aged 14 and just eight days into his first job as an ‘office boy’ in the B & P’s Transport Department, he was muddling through a telephone enquiry when he was shaken by “a series of almighty explosions” which brought the call to “an abrupt end”.
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His first floor office overlooked the main drive into the seven-acre factory site on one side and, through glass partitions, a vast joinery shop on the other, not far from the steel shed where vast girder frames for aircraft hangars were riveted and welded and where the worst of the damage was inflicted.
“When I recovered my senses,” he later wrote, “I went out to see if I could do anything, but we had a good St John Ambulance Branch and they were well in control along with the other ARP services. They brought the casualties out to the front gate to the waiting ambulances and it was there that I saw a dead person for the first time.”
All told, 10 workers had been fatally hit to add to the seven railway station workers killed, but it was the bomb that sprayed death and maiming injuries on Carrow Hill that struck the most heart-wrenching blow.
Thirteen-year-old Basil Linstead was running an errand halfway up the hill behind a crowd of women workers who had just spilled out of Reckitt and Colman’s mustard mills when he spotted bombs falling. He just had time to see one strike the Boulton & Paul factory before he hit the ground. The next one he heard but thankfully never saw as it detonated in trees above the unsuspecting women.
“It was a disaster,” he recalled. “They never stood a chance.” Five died, two of them teenagers, and many more suffered a myriad of life-changing injuries from shards of shrapnel and shredded flint ripped from the hillside wall.
Not far away, 19-year-old Ray Gray was marvelling at his own narrow escape. Another Colman’s worker, he had watched spellbound as the bombs fell before diving for cover just in time in a store house packed with bags of oats.
His father and fellow Colman’s worker was even luckier. “He had just left off work and was walking down King Street when the stick of bombs passed over the top of him,” recalled Ray. “He was a First World War veteran and he knew what to do. He flattened himself against a wall almost as they burst and all he suffered was a mouthful of dirt which he spat out.”
The total death toll stretched to 27 with the police reporting a further 90 people injured, all in the space of a few minutes on a late summer’s afternoon.
A nervousness took grip that revealed itself in the number of false alarms that followed in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Derek Griffiths counted no fewer than five warnings during the early hours of July 12. “We all feel exhausted,” he noted in his diary. “This morning… the school started at 10am to give us all a chance to pull ourselves together.”
Outside The Close, private mutterings about the raid had turned to public recriminations. Workers at Barnard’s voiced their anger at machine-gun emplacements being unmanned even though explosions had been heard “a minute or so” before bombs struck the factory, while staff at Colman’s maintained no lives would have been lost if a warning had been sounded.
Their message to Civil Defence leaders was clear: improve the system, including counter-measures, or risk strike action.
Morale in Norwich had been shaken and there were tetchy exchanges at a hastily-convened conference of civic leaders, industrialists and CD officials called by Regional Commissioner Sir Will Spens on July 13.
Alderman Fred Jex, a lifelong socialist who claimed to speak “for the working-class of Norwich as a whole”, reckoned the enemy bombers had first been spotted at 4.15pm, a full hour before the city factories were attacked, giving “ample time for warnings”.
He said workers felt their interests were being “disregarded” and warned that “they would not continue working if steps were not taken to prevent similar happenings in future”, which prompted an indignant response from the country’s Civil Defence Chief, Sir Hugh Elles.
The doughty old warrior, a former First World War general, insisted that “people must be educated to expect loss of life in raids” before adding: “the best way to stop raids was to produce more guns and planes, and to that end production must be kept up”.
Jex, however, was not done yet. Reacting to what he regarded as a slur on the city’s workers, he hit back, declaring that they “were fully aware that lives would be lost in raids, but they need not be lost unnecessarily”.
In the days and weeks that followed refinements would be made to the warning system. Carrow House sprouted scaffolding as a new observation post took shape with spotters supplied by Boulton & Paul, Laurence Scott & Electromotors and Reckitt and Colman.
Intended as an adjunct to the public warning system, the self-help venture was designed to give workers more confidence, but, as events soon showed, it offered little protection against enemy raiders that continued to strike the city with impunity during a concerted offensive that would become known as the Battle of Britain.
The public sirens were again inexplicably silent as bombs fell on Norwich during three small-scale attacks within the space of a fortnight as July gave way to August.
In the second of these, on July 30, an early morning raider delivered death to the city’s central residential districts and destruction to the Surrey Street Bus Station where a couple of double deckers, both mercifully unoccupied, were torn apart, their roofs peeled open like tin cans.
One bus driver, Fred Drake, who was on his way to work at the time, had seen the enemy aircraft flitting in and out of clouds of mist as it circled the city before diving to attack. “I saw several bombs leave the plane,” he said, “and ran to warn people standing near by. I pushed them under cover and we had no sooner got inside when I heard a terrific crash.”
Observers perched above Carrow House also saw the aircraft, timed at 6.02am, but barely had a chance to sound “an imminent danger or ‘crash’ warning” before a string of bombs had straddled a swathe of the city stretching from Surrey Street to King Street.
Worse was to follow two days later when ‘spotters’ were again taken by surprise by another lone attacker. Identified as a Junkers 88, it was sighted at 3.10pm just as it “swooped” in from the south-west, making straight for the Boulton & Paul factory complex.
A ‘crash’ warning signal was immediately relayed but few if any workers heard it before the first bombs exploded. Young Pat Woodward, who was at his desk as usual, saw the last of a stick of four “fly over the factory fence into the railway goods yard” before diving for cover as the bombs exploded in the paint shop and canteen.
Charles Lynes, a machinist, was working a short distance away, waiting for a manager to inspect a new piece of equipment when the bombs fell with “no warning”. “The direct hit on the canteen threw bricks and rubble on to our glass roof and everywhere went dark,” he recalled. “I ran through the back entrance which opened on to the railway yard and rolled under a truck and heard the rattle of machine-gun fire from the aircraft.”
Inside the factory’s ‘bomb box’ manufacturing department, Sid Clapham’s dive beneath an assembly bench was almost simultaneous with “the loudest bang” he had ever heard. Looking up, he noticed “the air was full of flying glass, debris and shrapnel, all hurtling in one direction away from the river end accompanied by the roar of the blast”.
In what seemed no time at all, the river end of the ‘box shop’ was on fire and as he got to his feet “it was obvious there was no way of saving it”.
A human chain was formed in a brave attempt to save finished products from the flames, but the salvage effort soon had to be abandoned because of the intensity of the fire which rapidly reduced the building to what Charles Lynes called a “shambles” of rubble and broken glass.
Dazed and shocked, Sid made his way towards Carrow Bridge where he was besieged by a crowd of people “anxious for news of friends and relatives”.
Though he did not know it then, another 13 people had been killed, some in the railway goods yard but most in the factory’s blitzed canteen and joinery.
What Pat Woodward took to be “an extraordinarily lucky attack” from an enemy perspective was, in actual fact, another incredible example of precision bombing albeit carried out again under the false premise that the factory so skilfully targeted was an aircraft manufacturing plant.
As smoke billowed into the summer sky, the lone raider directed a parting burst of gunfire across riverside before “flying away into clouds in the direction of the coast”, its unopposed and unerringly successful mission complete.
It was another daring coup that represented a further embarrassing lesson in what prove a sharp learning curve for civilians and military personnel alike during a summer of carnage and courage close to home.
Norwich would be raided four more times before the Battle of Britain was officially declared over but none would be seared in the memory quite in the same way as those first startling attacks when the city’s population found itself in the front line as never before.
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