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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 11:14 GMT
Blitzed by guidebook
A Luftwaffe bomber over London
Sixty years ago on Thursday, the UK and Nazi Germany began tit-for-tat bombing raids against each other's historic buildings. The Luftwaffe reputedly used Baedeker tourist guides to pick cultural targets, writes military historian Peter Caddick-Adams.

In the spring of 1942, the Luftwaffe began to rain bombs down on English towns notable not for their armaments factories, but for their rich histories and architectural treasures.

A British Ford factory during the war
Both airforces tried to hit factories
Curious as they were, the attacks are important to our understanding of air warfare in World War II - for they led directly to the 1,000-bomber RAF raids that so utterly destroyed many German towns and cities.

During the early years of WWII, both Britain and Germany had attempted to bomb each other's industrial centres, but with so little accuracy that the Luftwaffe switched to the large "soft" target of London.

Fear of aerial bombing had gripped 1930s Europe - just as the threat of a nuclear holocaust shook the world in the 1950s and 60s.

We shall ... bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide

Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm
One fanciful pre-war Whitehall paper predicted a bombing campaign against Britain where 600,000 would be killed and 1.2 million injured by enemy aircraft dropping 700 tons of bombs per day.

Destruction on this vast scale had not come to pass by 1942 in either Britain or Germany, because there were too few bombers, of limited range, with light bomb loads and poor aiming technology.

That was until 28 March 1942, when RAF Bomber Command hit Lübeck, and hit it hard. But why pulverise a pretty medieval port on the Baltic coast of limited military value?

Earlier in the year, the RAF asked exiled German scientist Professor Franz Lindemann to study the effect of the 1941 Nazi blitz on Hull. He said the locals minded losing their homes more than anything else, and concluded that making German civilians homeless could affect their war effort and undermine their morale.

Coventry Cathedral in ruins
Many raids obliterated culture, not industry
The uncompromising head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Vice Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, seized on this and persuaded Churchill to let him hit a "soft" German target.

By early 1942, both air forces were more sophisticated than in 1940, using radar for guidance and the RAF was beginning to introduce heavy, four-engined bombers.

Undefended Lübeck was found easily by 234 RAF aircraft. Within hours, 300 tons of explosives and incendiaries had destroyed over half the old town, killed 320 and made 14,000 homeless.

Lindemann had been right, as Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels confided to his diary: "The English air raids have increased in scope and importance. If they can be continued for weeks on these lines, they might conceivably have a demoralising effect on the population."

Flushed with success, Harris attacked another old Baltic port, Rostock, and had 12 of his new four-engined Lancasters execute a daring daylight raid on Augsberg.

Josef Goebbels
Goebbels feared German morale would break
Hitler's fury knew no bounds at the RAF's impudence and the Luftwaffe was ordered to retaliate in kind.

First to be attacked was Torquay. Then Brixham, Bognor Regis and Swanage were hit. By the third week of April, Portland, Exmouth, Bexhill, Folkestone, Hastings, Lydd, Dungeness, Cowes and Newhaven had all suffered "tip-and-run" raids - so-called because the fast fighter-bombers randomly "tipped" their bombs and "ran" for it.

Exactly when and why the Luftwaffe High Command decided to switch from these nuisance raids to conventional bombing raids on cultural centres of no military value is difficult to determine, but on 23 April, twenty-five German bombers attacked Exeter, using radar beams as a guide.

About 70 locals died in the raid and the Germans returned home without loss. Boasting of the raid at a press conference the following day, Nazi propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm said: "We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide."

Dresden in 1945
Dresden was devastated by the RAF
No records exist to say whether the Baedeker books actually featured in the Luftwaffe plan, or if the mention was inventive spin on Baron von Sturm's part - but on 25 April it was the turn of historic Bath to be blitzed for two nights in a row.

More than 100 bombers caused nearly 1,300 casualties and damaged 20,000 buildings. This was a major blow to the undefended town, and Harris sent his bombers again to Rostock over four nights, killing or wounding nearly 6,000 in a clearly retaliatory act.

The terror bombing of civilians had become policy for both countries, as a way of undermining national morale.

The Luftwaffe turned its attentions to Norwich, on 27 and 29 April. These raids started nearly 200 fires, killed or wounded 850 and damaged 19,600 houses. The county town of York heard the approach of enemy aeroplanes at midnight on 28 April. Two hours later, some 300 lay wounded or dead, whilst 9,500 houses were destroyed or damaged.

British children being evacuated from the cities
Civilians bore the brunt of the raids
In each raid, German losses had been negligible. Exploiting this way of inflicting cheap victories over the British, German bombers returned in the early hours of 3 May to Exeter, killing another 161 and injuring 500.

The cathedral survived, as had those of Bath, Norwich and York, but 4,200 buildings were gutted. The rest of the month was quiet, apart from a few tip-and-run attacks on 23 May, but Harris had already planned a massive response.

On 30 May, he scraped his equipment barrel to hurl 1,000 bombers in three waves at Cologne. In 40 minutes, they released 2,000 tons of bombs, started 12,000 fires and made some 45,000 homeless, whilst 468 were killed and 5,000 injured.

The German response was to hit the cathedral town of Canterbury on 1 June in what German newspapers openly admitted was a Vergeltungsangriffe (retaliation raid), causing another 140 casualties and laying to waste its mediaeval heart, but missing the cathedral.

American troops enter Cologne
Cologne's cathedral survived the RAF bombs
Luftwaffe records do not tell us why the Baedeker sequence of raids then petered out. Although Ipswich, Yarmouth (which lost its parish church), Norwich, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge (which lost about 100 houses) were also blitzed at this time, some historians hesitate to call them "Baedeker" raids, as very few aircraft were involved and few bombs dropped.

In the five towns hit in the Baedekers proper - Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury - 1,637 civilians had been killed and 1,760 injured, but the retaliation this prompted against German towns and cities saw far greater destruction.

Raids on Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945, caused the deaths of at least 150,000 people.

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