You are on page 1of 6

Chapter 2 Fires were started

Diana Gray could scarcely contain her excitement. “Gosh, what a night!” she gushed. “We’ve had a blitz.” The tone of her diary entry for the momentous night of April 27-28, 1942 seemed more in keeping with a high-spirited schoolgirl than a middle-aged spinster. But then, Diana was no ordinary woman. Highly intelligent and highly principled, she was a formidable and sometimes forbidding presence at the Norwich and Ely Diocesan Training College for Schoolmistresses where she taught psychology and English literature. With her short grey hair turning prematurely white and the features of an Agatha Christie heroine, she appeared far older than her 54 years, but, as her young charges were quick to discover there was nothing remotely frail about Diana Gray. A woman of exacting standards, she was a stern judge of character who reserved the harshest criticism for herself. And behind all her occasional bluster there was a fairminded honesty. Those who knew her best realised she meant well and cared far more about the welfare of her students than she ever dared admit. Thus far, Diana Gray’s war had been an arduous if unexciting one. On top of her day job, she was a thoroughly committed Civil Defence volunteer. An occasional fire-watcher, who took her turns guarding the college, she was also a trained air-raid warden. Based at post G6, where The Avenues joins Christchurch Road, her job was to help the chief warden direct operations by maintaining communications during any raids. That much was common knowledge. What was not known at all was that Diana was also a Mass-

Observation diarist, part of an organisation born out of a pre-war anthropological study of British society that was used by the government to gauge morale. The diaries and reports written by hundreds of ordinary people like Diana Gray formed the raw material used by Home Intelligence, an offshoot of the Ministry of Information, to assess rumours, reaction to government propaganda and, most importantly, attitudes and behaviour during and after enemy air attack. As such, they carried considerably more weight than the average blitz journal. By turns, objective and opinionated, they invariably reflected the characters of the people writing them while also laying bare the authors’ own private battles and crises of conscience. Such was the case for Diana Gray when the siren wailed its first warning of the danger to come. Torn between responsibility for her students and her duty as an air-raid warden she chose the former, though not without a pang of regret and a troubling sense of guilt. “I ought to have gone round to the warden’s post,” she later confided in her diary, “but got stuck at the hostel.” The truth was she preferred to be busy. That way, she felt, she wouldn’t have time to worry about any bombing. And there was another reason for wishing to be at the post that she scarcely dared admit to herself: the warden’s hut was “safe from anything but a direct hit”. “I am ashamed of thinking of this,” she noted. “I have always regarded myself as an arrant coward. Perhaps I’m not - as I gather everyone does feel scared and it’s a question of how one behaves. But it is vile to sit and wait for the next one. No worse for me than for others. But vile…” Maybe it was because of her nagging doubts, or more likely a case of having been lulled into a false sense of security by so many bogus alarms, but she was uncharacteristically slow to respond to the alert. Not until midnight, when she heard a “loudish bang” did she retreat, together with 10 students, a “very nervous” hostel keeper and the keeper’s prospective son-in-law soldier and first world war veteran, into what Diana called the “strengthened room”, in reality a villa kitchen reinforced by timber supports. There they remained as stomach-churning explosions shook their refuge and threatened to rattle their resolve. “From midnight to 1.45 bombs dropped, 1-2-3-4-5 or 1-2-3-4, or sometimes singly, every few minutes,” wrote Diana. “The intervals between sticks became shorter as time went on. I asked the soldier how near he thought the nearest had been as he has had more experience than I, and he said about a quarter of a mile. Girls laughed and joked and talked. All flat on floor when wheeeesh was heard. In the short lulls I kept going out to have a look - large fires in the city, smaller ones to the west and north. “I said to soldier, ‘Of course you’re pretty hardened to this sort of thing’. “‘Not to this, I’m not’, he answered. ‘Last time I was in a trench, you felt quite safe there’, looking up anxiously at our bits of matchwood. He said, ‘There’s a whole squadron of them up there’, and seemed to think the RAF had been caught napping…” Though not entirely accurate, there was no denying that the Luftwaffe’s arrival over Norwich had taken most of its citizens, not to mention its sparsely-spread defenders and Civil Defence workers, completely by surprise. Never before, not even during the spell of tip and run raids, had the German air force mounted an attack of such ferocity against the city. Reports written in the immediate aftermath of the assault estimated the number of bombers at between 25 and 30, a figure that would prove remarkably accurate. Led by two Heinkel 111 bombers from a newly-constituted elite pathfinder unit (Erpr Kdo 17), a force of 26 aircraft, made up of twin-engined Junkers 88s and Dornier 217s, were detailed to deliver Norwich’s Baedeker baptism of fire. Mainly from Kampfgeschwader KG2, and including some trainee aircrew making their first sortie since converting to Do 217s, they were part of a larger force that left its bases in France and Holland bound for a range of targets across eastern England deliberately selected to confuse the British defences. The first hint of increased activity over the North Sea had been detected by radio intercepts at around 8.15pm. A force of 20 mine-laying Ju 88s operating off the coast between Cromer and Southwold added to the defenders’ uncertainty. But it soon became obvious that Norwich, only

lightly defended and merely a 20-mile hop from the coast, was the most likely objective for the main force. By 11.21pm, when the sirens began sounding, any lingering doubts had been expunged. With searchlights scanning the bright moonlit sky the first German raider began its diving descent and the raid was on. The leading pathfinder unleashed its cargo of flares over City Station at 11.40pm just as a Bofors battery at RAF Horsham St Faith fired the opening salvo of the night. Like everything else that night the response was desultory and misdirected. Barely five rounds were fired unavailingly as a lone Ju 88 sped low across the airfield north of the city. By then, a cascading shower of “chandelier” flares were turning night into day and providing an unmistakeable beacon for the following bombers. According to Ralph Mottram, the first chronicler of the Norwich raids, nothing like the “spectacular illumination” had been seen in the nocturnal sky over the city since the firework display and bonfire marking Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1897. Its haunting beauty served as a chilling prelude of the terrifying ordeal to come and left many with an enduring image of the Baedeker onslaught. Mike Bailey, an eight-year-old living in a terrace facing Heigham waterworks, was held spellbound by the unnatural spectacle. Like many that night, he had been slow to respond to the threat from above. Shaken awake by his mother, he threw on some clothes before stumbling outside to the deafening roar of aeroplane engines: “We were about to go in our shelter when our next door neighbours, an elderly couple, called us, saying, ‘Margaret, Michael, come in our shelter with us’. But I was transfixed. I just stood there looking at a line of flares which seemed just like a staircase of light, slowly coming down over the city. The next thing I remember was my mum calling, ‘Don’t stand there with your mouth open. Get down into the shelter’ and she literally dragged me inside…” In post-raid reports British officials speculated that the Germans had marked the wrong target, believing that they had mistaken City Station for Thorpe Station, which, with its inviting riverside factories, had been a key aiming point in the past. The proximity of both railway hubs to loops in the River Wensum made such an error easy to make. Or so they reasoned. Some insisted the bombers found their way to the heart of the city by following the river. But they were all wide of the mark, having reckoned without the accuracy of the Luftwaffe’s electronic navigational aids. During the course of the Baedeker offensive against Britain, German bombers made the best use of what one historian, specialising in the Luftwaffe’s air campaign, has described as some of the most “impressively sophisticated systems” of their time. The X-Geraet radio beam devices operated on a myriad of frequencies in order to make jamming difficult. Codenamed “Rivers” and later “Ruffian” by British intelligence, X-Geraet employed four beams - a main director or approach beam providing the aircraft flight path which was, in turn, crossed by a series of three beams, en route to the bomb release point. By the end of 1940, British air intelligence scientists led by Professor R V Jones had identified the beams and, with the help of top secret Enigma intercepts, were able to introduce a system for ‘blocking’ the beams and to plot the Luftwaffe’s intended targets. The Germans, however, did not stand still. As well as changing the radio frequencies in the midst of attacks, they developed a variant which they were convinced would defeat the best efforts of 80 Wing, the RAF’s elite electronic countermeasures unit. Codenamed Taub, German for deaf, it involved a supersonic sound frequency inaudible to the human ear. The aim was to bluff the British jammers into thinking the bombers were using the original device by applying the old modulation frequency. This would then be blocked, only for the jamming to be filtered out, allowing the crews to navigate via the ultrasonic frequency superimposed on the old one. It was all extremely cunning, but in this war of technological leap-frogging it wasn’t long before the British cottoned onto what was happening. Professor Jones had long suspected the Germans might alter the modulation frequency and, by the autumn of 1941, intelligence gleaned from a captured airman and from enemy signals traffic confirmed it. According to Jones, “we were aware of every important detail of the new system many weeks before it came into effect, and No 80 Wing was able to add supersonic modulation to its jammers in good time”. But, unbeknown to Jones, there was a crucial flaw in the British countermeasures plan that would prove costly for the people of Norwich.

On April 27/28, 1942, however, other factors were also to play into the hands of the Luftwaffe, most notably the weather and the weakness of the opposition. Ordered to target industrial districts while cowing the population with indiscriminate bombing, the enemy were aided by an almost clear night and a paucity of defences which gifted them the freedom of the sky. Swooping low over a city so close to the coast that it would probably have been easy to locate with or without the beams the pathfinders released parachute flares and incendiaries that served as aiming points for the bombers following. Their mission accomplished, they roared across the target area, spraying it with machine-gun fire, before leaving the scene to the main force. Post-raid Civil Defence reports talk of a brief lull before the bombing attack began, though few who witnessed it recall the slightest pause. For the most part, the bomber crews acted independently. Roaring across the city, mainly from west to east, they made full use of the favourable conditions, indulging in shallow and steep diving attacks. The sound of these manoeuvres, which were repeated throughout the onslaught, added a terrifying dimension to a remarkably accurate bombardment. The area in and around the Midland and Great Northern Railway terminus was soon ablaze. City Station was approaching its diamond jubilee. Known as the Muddle and Go Nowhere line, it provided a meandering link via Melton Constable and King’s Lynn to the nation’s industrial heartlands and was a point of entry for an array of livestock destined for the city centre market. Though something of a poor relation to Thorpe Station, it nevertheless possessed one distinctive feature: an ornate, neo-classical façade which was likened to “an industrial cathedral”. Built of Costessey red brick and set off by white brick dressings and facings, the 130ft-wide entrance featured a magnificent central archway that led out onto four covered platforms. Such architectural niceties were undoubtedly pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately, not just for the station, but also the clutter of factories and terraces that straggled either side of it, they were also highly combustible. Many of the buildings had felted wooden roofs lined with boarded ceilings. These were quickly torched by incendiary fires which, in the words of one report, “soon overpowered the efforts of fire-fighters”. The speed of destruction was extraordinary. Within what seemed minutes flames were tearing through a grain store crammed with biscuits. The goods station offices were soon alight and the platforms became rivers of fire as flames raced along the overhead covers, incinerating empty passenger coaches along the way. High explosive bombs added to the devastation. One demolished the central hall and reduced a wing of the Romanesque entrance to a ruin. Beyond the station the fires spread almost as rapidly. To the south, where a rash of factories, timber yards and warehouses straddled the river, a similar mix of incendiaries and high explosive bombs took a fearful toll. Shrapnel was heard “sizzling” as deadly shards of metal sprayed the Wensum. Both sides of Westwick Street were turned into sheets of flame that consumed a chunk of the Wincarnis works. On the other side of the road, the main Corporation Depot was gutted with the loss of vital workshops and valuable Civil Defence stores that included nine vehicles. At the depot, human tragedy was piled on material carnage when a 500kg bomb scored a direct hit on a surface shelter in which four men had taken refuge. The 8-inch thick concrete roof and 18-inch solid brick walls were transformed into a jumble of broken masonry in which all four died. Among those killed at the depot was 50-year-old James Davison, a member of the corporation’s engineering department and a staff officer for the city’s rescue squads. On duty that night as a fire-watcher, he was last seen heading to help some injured men when another bomb, one of three high explosive bombs to hit the depot, exploded. Three other men had a lucky escape. Entombed in an underground store that had been converted into a shelter, they were hemmed in by fire which set light to the heavy wooden doors guarding both exits. Incredibly, they survived to be rescued via an emergency manhole cover. The trail of destruction continued south where a flour mill was badly hit. The damage extended across the river where a block of factories, including an 18th century building occupied by shoe manufacturers Sexton, Son & Everard, was ravaged by fire. Over the road, among a hotch-potch of new and old factory

buildings bordering Oak Street, the Hind & Hardy St Mary’s Silk Mills endured the first of a double dose of destruction. Mostly turned over to war work, the huddle of workshops and covered yards that housed weaving looms, dyeing and processing plants was blasted and burned by a succession of blows. The first was timed at 12.26am. A 250kg bomb fell in New Mills passage, sending timber truss roofing crashing onto the looms below and laying waste to a neighbouring furniture factory. Not long after, another 250kg bomb, one of those that struck the Corporation Depot, wrought further damage to the silk mills. And all the while, fires from numberless incendiaries were raging out of control. With no works fire brigade, the small team of fire-watchers, armed only with a stationary pump, had little hope of containing let alone putting out the blaze. The fires that fanned out from City Station were horrendous. One fire-watcher at a petrol storage depot near City Station arrived home in a state of shock that was followed by a loss of skin pigmentation. Later reports calculated that the spreading flames engulfed a 120-acre swathe either side of the river, though the officials compiling the raid data were at pains to stress that it did not amount to a complete conflagration as “the fires were not continuous especially in the open district round the water works…” Complete or not, those who witnessed it at close quarters remember it as nothing short of an inferno. Among the fire crews despatched to Oak Street at the height of the blitz was a 19-year-old newlymarried former policeman. Originally from Fulham, Len Scrivens had quit his job as an aero engineer to join the Norwich Force early in the war. Since then, he had decided to transfer to the newly-constituted National Fire Service, along with his old station sergeant and friend, Sam Bussey, who became a station officer in the Bethel Street-based No 13 Division. With incendiaries raining down on City Station, the two ex-bobbies found themselves aboard the same grey-daubed Austin engine, a water pump trailing behind, as they steered straight for the fires. It was their first experience of combating the effects of a heavy raid and for one of them it would also be their last. Len Scrivens recalls: “By the time we arrived, all the old cottages were being lit up, just as if people were putting lights on. What had happened was that incendiaries had gone through the roofs and set them afire. We parked up in Sussex Street and Sam, unbeknown to me, went off to get some horses free that were thought to be trapped in some burning stables in Oak Street, while I went into the houses. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the old folk who lived there had already got out and were in a surface shelter nearby. It was just a case of getting in, clambering upstairs and dealing with the incendiaries, usually by discarding them out the windows as quickly as possible. You had to get them outside because they kept re-igniting. There wasn’t time to use hoses, and in any case you couldn’t have got them everywhere…” The plain fact was there were too many fires with more breaking out all the time. From one house, Len spotted some incendiaries burning in the back yards. The only access was via the rear doors which were locked, so he started to run back to the engine for an axe. He hadn’t gone far when he heard the scream of bombs falling: “A cluster of high explosive came down. It might have been four, five or even six, but the one which blew me up I never heard. You were always taught to go flat and as I went down I caught sight of Sam Bussey. He was standing on the corner of the junction of Oak Street and Sussex Street and that was the last time I saw him. I was buried where I laid, next to the vehicle and the kerb. The vehicle was opened up like a can of worms and I was underneath what ever came down with it. I had shrapnel through my right arm and various pieces all over my head and shoulders. Another fireman, Malcolm Pease, was also peppered, but he was still all right. I was out completely…” Len has no idea how long he lay there, smothered in debris and dirt, but as he started to regain consciousness his mind swirled with fractured images of family and friends: “I’d only been married a few days and I could see my wife, all my family and the people I knew going past as on a film. They were all looking at me. I thought I was dying. But slowly I started to come round and I went to get up and found it a bit of a job and couldn’t understand why until I saw the injury to my arm. I couldn’t walk, so I crawled over the road. My helmet had gone. They later found it down the road, full of

holes and the chin strap gone. I crawled into a surface shelter. One end was missing. It had been blown off by a bomb, probably the same one that got our engine and myself. I could see some people sitting on seats, but all I remember thinking was how smelly it was and sitting on the floor with my head against the cold wall to keep myself from passing out.” A little to the north-east, the bombing had taken the six staff and senior pupils on fire-watch patrol in the grounds of the Blyth Girls’ Secondary School completely by surprise. Mistaking the first aircraft for a British bomber, they were sent scurrying for cover by a shower of bombs and incendiaries which shook a bunch of rooks out of the branches of nearby trees. Two of the patrol sheltered by the gymnasium until the caretaker, a first world war veteran, advised them to make for the school’s air-raid trenches. It proved sound advice. Seconds later, a bomb demolished the gym, shattering part of the roof of the cookery room, bringing down ceilings and blowing out all the windows in the northern end of the main school building. Believing in safety in numbers, two of the fire-watchers made a dash through the school to join the others. One of them, Kathleen Chastney, later wrote a third-person description of what followed: “Everything looked normal in the front hall, but when they entered the quadrangle, to their horror, they found themselves falling over glass and doors which were piled up in the corridors. They were amazed when they found that the gymnasium was a heap of rubble, and they immediately called to the others from the tops of the trenches nearby…” Eventually reunited, the six, joined by the school caretaker and his wife, remained under cover until the last bomber left and the “all-clear” sounded to give them a chance to inspect the damage and marvel at their escape. They had survived bombs, incendiaries and machine-gunning with nothing worse to show for it than a few scratches. Back in Oak Street, Len Scrivens had lost all track of time. He has no recollection of when the ambulance reached him. His next memory is of lying on a hospital floor among many other serious casualties all waiting for treatment. Lying on a stretcher next to him was a young lad with a piece of shrapnel sticking out of his back. The long lines of bloodied men, women and children, many of them smothered in soot and plaster, were evidence enough of the extent of the bombing and its dreadful human toll. A raid that had delivered its first and heaviest blow to the area around City Station had also pelted the congested sprawl of terraces to the north and west with a random and deliberately indiscriminate destructiveness that left an enduring mark on the city. On that first night of Norwich’s Baedeker blitz, there was no such thing as the right or wrong side of the tracks. Whichever side you were on, the suffering was universal as families crouching in cupboards, squatting beneath tables or squeezed into a variety of air raid shelters faced the full fury of a war delivered to their doors.