My family lost everything when bombs fell 80 years ago in Norwich
The photograph shows houses on Waterloo Road in Norwich on April 28, 1942, homes crumbling like teeth knocked from their sockets.
One of these homes is the reason why there is only one photograph of my mum as a very young baby: the other family pictures were consumed by fire, along with every single possession my beloved nanna owned.
This was a black day in Norwich’s history, but although it led to years of heartache and hardship for my maternal family, my nanna Stella King said she’d never felt so lucky,
She and her little daughter, my mum, were alive.
In 1939 there were 35,000 houses in Norwich city centre: 2,000 were completely destroyed and another 2,600 badly damaged during the war.
Only 5,000 houses escaped without any damage at all.
The anniversary of the Baedeker Raids of April 1942 was always remembered in my household: my Mum’s house was one of the 2,000 completely obliterated by Luftwaffe bombers, her street was destroyed, her nursery blown out of existence.
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She and my grandmother had lived on Waterloo Road in Norwich, close to Magpie Road – my grandad Alfred was working away from the Post Office, leaving nanna to look after a baby alone.
On the night when the German planes turned Norwich streets to smoking rubble though, nanna wasn’t at home. She wasn’t even at the air raid shelter at nearby St Augustine’s School, where my mum Jacqueline (then King) went to nursery.
She had decided to go and spend the night with her sister in another part of Norwich, taking almost two-year-old Jacqueline with her: that visit may well have saved her life.
Mum wrote the story of what happened that night for my son Cole’s school project 12 years ago, and it was read at her funeral after her death in November 2019. I include parts of it below.
Every year we would visit the Baedeker Garden of Remembrance at Earlham Cemetery and she would show me names of the neighbours who my nanna could never talk about without her eyes filling with tears.
Stella went on to have two more children, David and Angela, having walked away from Waterloo Road with just an overnight bag and mum’s pram: it would be years before she had another proper home of her own, a brand-new council house on the Larkman Estate.
She said it felt like a mansion after years of sofa-surfing and begging favours from relatives.
These stories are 80 years old now and, like historic buildings, must be carefully maintained because they still inform the future. A different decision, a night spent at home because babies were often unpopular in shelters, and this story would have been very different.
Not least because I wouldn’t have been here to write it.
This year, I remember the hardship and tragedy that my family and so many other families faced in April 1942 and the years that followed, those that lost their lives, and all those stories that ended in an instant.
Jacqueline King was born in 1940, the first of three children. She wrote her account of the Baedeker Raids:
“My father was away in the army and my mother and I lived in a small terrace house on Waterloo Road in Norwich.
“One day, my mother and I had left the house to visit relatives. It was a good job we did go out, because that night, Hitler unleashed the Baedeker Raids on Norwich and our house was reduced to a pile of smoking rubble.
“Everything we had was in ruins. Because I was only young, to me it just looked like a giant bonfire. I was upset that the toys I had were gone, although I hadn’t really had many, and that my cat was missing. We never saw him again.
“In those days, the fire service was voluntary and they were busy fighting the fires around the city. We heard that the Cathedral had been damaged and my mother quickly realised that we needed to find somewhere to stay. All we had was what we were wearing – nothing else. Everything had been destroyed.
“When my father heard, he blamed the anti-aircraft gunners in Norwich. He said they wouldn’t be able to hit City Hall if they were based at the Guildhall, which is just next door.
“I remember being really upset that my nursery, which was close to my house, had also been completely destroyed. My mother was doing war work and so I had often gone to the nursery and I’d loved it. The bomb site where the nursery had been was still there way into the 1950s – later, they built a swimming pool there – St Augustine’s.
“As far as I know, none of our neighbours were killed, although lots of others were killed in Norwich. We were lucky, although I’m sure my mother didn’t think so because she’d lost absolutely everything.
“Everyone where we lived was in the same pickle. Normally, if the school had still been standing, we’d have all slept there for a few nights until we could find somewhere to stay, but the school was gone. For the next six months, we slept on a relative’s floor because we had nowhere else to go.
“My mother said that her relatives hadn’t really wanted to put her and her child up and she never forgave them for it. We weren’t exactly made to feel welcome. When we left them, my mother never spoke to them again.
“There was no insurance in times of war, so no way we could afford to buy back what we’d lost. Kind people at the Red Cross helped, I will always remember the Canadian people were particularly generous to us, sending over handmade patchwork quilts they’d made. Those quilts went on for years.
“Luckily for us, one of my father’s soldier friends said his wife lived near Sheringham and she could put us up. My mum got on really well with auntie Jean, as I called her, and we had some really good times. She lived in a really old-fashioned cottage. There was a stream at the bottom of our garden and the toilet was right down near the stream – I think it ran straight into the water.
“We moved back to Norwich when we were given a flat on Hassett Close, near Mousehold. One day, my mum let her friend take me out for a walk in my pushchair on Mousehold Heath. We were walking along when suddenly we heard the whine of aircraft above us and the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine guns.
“I remember my mum’s friend pushed over the pushchair and then dived into a ditch to avoid the bullets. After the planes had gone, she was really nice to me – I knew she didn’t want me to tell mum what had happened, because she’d get into trouble for leaving me. I didn’t tell my mother what had happened until years afterwards and she was right, mum said she would have killed her if she’d known!
“I remember VE day in Norwich very well. My mother carted me out in the old pram – it was a re-conditioned Silver Cross pram, very big and comfortable. She also used it to collect coal in and to carry shopping.
“She took me into the city and I remember being excited. There were loads of people, men in uniform, women dressed up and there was music, bunting everywhere and people doing the conga down the road. My mother joined in.
“Before, everyone had walked around with miserable faces, but now everyone was happy. Fun had been quite hard to find, especially if you were a child, in the war, but everyone in the city was having fun. It was like a big party – music, dancing, laughing.
“They were hard times, especially for mothers. We finally moved into a house on Gilbard Road in North Earlham and it felt like luxury, even though it was unheated and there was often ice on the inside of the windows. Soon after the war, my brother David came along and then my sister Angela. Family life went on as usual.
“Love from nan (Jacqueline Briggs)”