Stephen Snelling


by steve

Casualty of war and casualty of research…

I guess it’s what you might call sacrificing yourself for your art. There I was, one minute skipping up the staircase of the National Archives eager to sign in and begin the last lap of the research process for Commando Medic: Doc Harden VC. Then, the next minute, I was hobbling down the same steps like a sad old cripple barely able to put one foot in front of the other.

A split-second twist of the back as I got up out of my chair had rendered me virtually hors de combat; a casualty of historical investigation.

Through gritted teeth, I managed to carry on through an interminable and excruciatingly painful afternoon before facing up to the prospect of a long and uncomfortable journey home in the company of my old research partner Dick Rayner.

Still, at least, the effort – not to mention agony – was rewarded by some fascinating discoveries. As well as rooting out some useful information concerning Doc – most notably in the 1 Commando Brigade War Diaries and files relating to 45 RM Commando Honours and Awards – I managed to find some excellent material relating to two significant events in Norfolk’s wartime history which are fast approaching their 70th anniversaries.

The first relates to the compulsory evacuation of villages in Breckland in July 1942. Around 800 people were ordered out of their homes and off their land so that the army could create a training zone that would allow the men of Eastern Command to prepare for war in realistic conditions.

These people accepted their fate, in some cases even applauded the very people who were forcing them out, on the understanding that they would be able to return at the war’s end. Of course, they never did so. Thetford Battle Area remains one of the British army’s most notable training grounds.

All of this is well known. What I hadn’t realised until delving into the papers was the close personal interest taken in the ‘land grab’ by King George VI. Petitioned by Lord Walsingham, who stood to lose more than most, the King sought assurances from the government to ensure that the evacuees were fairly compensated and their properties protected. All in all, it’s a fascinating story just waiting to be told.

The other story that I wanted to investigate was the destruction by fire in June 1942 of Yarmouth’s parish church. The biggest parish church in the country fell victim to Luftwaffe incendiaries on the night of June 24/25, just a couple of nights before German bombers almost succeeded in burning down Norwich Cathedral. However, where the Norwich raid was planned, the attack on Yarmouth was almost certainly not – the German target for the night being Nuneaton.

Documents concerning the raid 70 years ago...

One aircraft, thought to have made two bombing passes over the church, was reported to have showered the roof with incendiaries. These collected in the church’s timber snow racks and defeated all attempts by the meagre band of Boys Brigade firewatchers to douse them. Soon the lead covering had melted, exposing the roof timber work to the furnace-like flames. Within minutes, the church was beyond salvation. The soaring spire was soon a mass of flames and collapsed through the tower roof.

In the grim aftermath there was some recrimination over the time it took the National Fire Service to respond to the blaze, though it seems unlikely that they would have been able to prevent the catastrophe.

Damage done to Yarmouth Parish Church on the night of June 24/25 1942

I’m planning to tell the story of the church’s destruction in an article for the Eastern Daily Press to be published around the time of the 70th anniversary. And I would dearly like to hear from anyone who can remember that terrible night and the dreadful consequences. If you have a story to tell about the night Yarmouth’s parish church went up in smoke then please respond via the comments area below, my website or email me at You can also telephone me on 01603 435624.

For now, though, I’m off to lie down and rest my back…


by steve

‘Bombed to Hell…’

It’s been a strangely schizophrenic week. One moment I’m hunkered down with ‘Doc’ Harden in a slit trench as mortar bombs rain down on an abandoned brickworks in Normandy, and the next I’m reliving the Baedeker blitz in a corrugated first world war vintage hall somewhere between Beccles and Lowestoft.

And between charting ‘Doc’s’ progress for my new book, Commando Medic, and talking to the Lowestoft Aviation Society about my old book, Norwich – A Shattered City, I was being drawn back to the scenes of devastation 70 years ago through the power of Irene Mould’s graphic letter.

Written in response to reading my book, it is a further vivid illustration of the enduring impact of the April raids on those who lived through them, as well as a moving expression of one young woman’s emotional reaction to experiences which all but beggared belief.

Irene was 21 at the time. She lived in Epsom Street, just off Rupert Street, and worked at Rowntree Mackintosh’s great chocolate manufacturing factory, better known by its original Norwich name of Caley’s. It’s incredible how reading those two names – Rupert Street and Caley’s – can send a shiver down the spine. But as soon as I read of those connections I found myself picturing those ghastly scenes captured by anonymous newspaper photographers and the late, great George Swain: of children picking through the mountains of rubble in Rupert Street and firemen dwarfed by the leaning walls of Caley’s incendiary-ravaged chocolate mills.

As it happens, Irene spent the night of April 27/28 at her sister’s house in William Street at the foot of Grapes Hill. Her sister had been to the Lido dance hall that night, but she stayed in and washed her hair. Next thing she remembered was hearing the Caley’s crash warning followed by the unmistakeable sound of aircraft engines. It seemed to be flying low:

‘I went to the front door and I heard the plane diving. I saw a glimpse of the plane and then it dropped its bomb on ‘Beers’ in Oak Street. ‘

It started a ‘huge blaze’.

At that moment, Irene’s sister came running in:

‘I’d called my niece to get dressed. She was 11 at the time. She, of course, was very frightened, as, I guess, we all were. We went to an Anderson shelter. I think there were about 12 of us in there (by the way, the siren didn’t go for a few minutes after the plane came over and bombed). Sitting in the shelter I could hear from the direction of Chapel Field, Rupert Street area that they were being bombed to Hell…

‘Then we heard this awful screaming sound. It was a huge bomb that fell [at the junction of] Dereham Road, Barn Road and St Benedict’s Street. They did say it was a landmine, by the size of the crater it could have been. Parts of the shelter we were in began to fall on us. So my sister, niece and myself got out of the shelter and started to run down William Street only to be machine-gunned. They were so low… Luckily, they missed. We eventually made it to a brick shelter at the other end of William Street. We stayed in there till the all-clear went…

‘I said to my sister, ‘I’m going to see how Mother is.’… When I approached Rupert Street it was an unbelievable sight, devastation everywhere. Homes close to us were completely destroyed. The rescue [parties] tried to stop me going through the mess, but I told them I lived there and was going to see if my Mother was OK. I went in our house; windows broken, doors and tiles all off. We always used to set our table for the morning. It was an awful sight. The table was covered in soot and parts of the ceiling…’

Her mother wasn’t there, so she toured the stricken streets in search of her. Eventually, after some time scrambling through the rubble, she found her:

‘She didn’t know me. She had hurt her back as she came down the stairs and a door had fallen on her back. I took her to my sisters who lived in Copeman Street. My mother didn’t seem to know any of us. I guess it was such a shock to her.

‘Likewise for everyone in Norwich. We had had tip and run raids, but never [anything] like that…’

The damage in Rupert Street which Irene refers...

In all my researches and interviews, I have come across few more harrowing accounts which better reflect the human suffering than this extraordinary story of a woman so stunned and confused by the horrors of that night she could not recognise her own children.

Thank you to Irene for sharing her heartrending story with me. I hope that it might inspire more people who lived through those difficult days to set down their recollections for posterity.

Please, remember you can still send me your blitz stories by contacting me via the website or by emailing me at


by steve

Selfless sacrifice that moves me to tears

The ruins of Norwich have given way to the scarred villages of rural Normandy this week as I chart the progress of ‘Doc’ Harden for my new book, Commando Medic.

As a member of 45 Royal Marine Commando he had undergone his baptism of fire on the D-Day beaches, braving mortaring and shelling to help wounded to safety before joining in one of the longest marches of the ‘longest day’.

'Doc' Harden

His unit covered some 12 miles, linking up with the airborne troops at Pegasus bridge before striking through enemy territory to secure the left flank of the allied bridgehead.

Over the course of the next few days, the commandos captured and then clung on to villages freckling a ridge east of the River Orne. These small French settlements suffered appallingly in the weeks that followed. They became ghost villages, with homes reduced to hollow shells.

One of the ruined French villages in Normandy where they fought in the summer of 1944

The story of the commando defence is an epic of the Normandy campaign that I knew little about until I came to research the story of this ordinary, everyday sort of bloke who went on to show extraordinary courage the following winter in an action that would cost him his life and earn for him a posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.

What has struck me most about his remarkable story, however, is the incredible qualities of the ‘hostilities only’ recruits who left their civilian jobs and, through dint of determination and bloody-minded defiance, won through to help defeat Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Their endurance, their stoicism and their lion-hearted courage in the face of great adversity has inspired me.

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to meet and speak with some of the survivors of this incredible ‘band of brothers’; men who fought alongside ‘Doc’ from Normandy to Holland and on into Germany. They are simple, straightforward men who did great things. Just like ‘Doc’ himself.

Within days of the landing in Normandy, he was squirming his way out of a cornfield in a desperate escape back to the commando perimeter. He made it by the skin of his teeth and went on to endure weeks of relentless attacks and bombardments before being relieved after one of the longest continuous spells in the line of any unit in the entire war.

Like most of the men he served alongside, he did his level best to play down the horrors and the privations, but in a strange sort of way that same understatement merely seems to add to the potency and poignancy of a saga of selfless sacrifice that retains the power to awe me and move me all at once.

From the midst of the smashed villages where ‘Doc’ and his mates held the line to help ensure the success of the allies’ invasion, he imagined a brave new world and a future he would not live to see. Just thinking about it all is enough to move me to tears.

I just hope that I can do justice to his heroic memory…


by steve

Online commemoration and a step back in time…

With the 70th anniversary of the opening salvo in the Baedeker blitz on Norwich almost upon us, the local media is mobilising its resources to mark this most sombre and sobering of milestones.

Derek James, one of the most respected of all journalists in the city, is no stranger to the story. Some years ago, he researched and wrote one of the most impressive newspaper supplements on the subject, and in recent weeks he has returned to the blitz saga with the promise of more articles to come in the Evening News.

Radio Norfolk is planning to commemorate the city’s ordeal by fire tomorrow (Friday, April 27) with a news item on the breakfast show. About Anglia and Look East, meanwhile, are scheduling their own reports about the bombing attacks that forever transformed the face of Norwich tomorrow evening.

The aerial assault on Norwich has also received national coverage in the form of an article on the Daily Mail’s news website: Click here to read the article – you should see more photographs from the magnificent George Swain Collection taken from my book, Norwich: A Shattered City.

If you want to get a closer view of the way the raids helped re-shape the city then you can take your own walk along the once-blitzed streets or, better still, join one of a number of guided tours being held in coming days.

As well as those being conducted as part of the Norwich Arts Centre’s open day on Saturday (see my previous blog for full details), there’s a blitz walk along St Benedict’s Street next month by Anna Sandfield and Louis Hoing, from the Hethersett-based Time Travel Team.

As air raid wardens Winnie Wiffen and Jack Whiffler, they will whisk people back to the dark days of 1942, blending historical fact, eyewitness recollections and music along the way.

Interviewed by Emma Knights of the Evening News, Anna says: “We just want to give people a little bit of a flavour of what happened and help them learn a little bit more about the history of the city they live in. Our walk with the air raid wardens is a little slice of Norwich in 1942, the raids and the bombings and also life on the home front. If things like this are not remembered now, then they will become lost in the mists of time.”

The walk was inspired by a photograph which appears in my book of a man standing at the St Benedicts Street crossroads with Grapes Hill and Dereham Road, in what appeared to be an enormous crater following the bombings.

St Benedict's at the junction with Grapes Hill and Dereham Road

Time Travel Team’s A Walk with the Wardens plus Stories and Music from the Home Front is next being held on Wednesday, May 9. It starts at 7.30pm at The Plough in St Benedicts Street. Tickets cost £5. For more information visit


by steve

Heroes, raids and time-travelling…

It’s been a dizzying week, juggling projects and switching time zones. One moment I was travelling in the slip-stream of ‘Darkie’ Hallows as he skimmed the roofs of Augsburg in a death-defying Lancaster sortie 70 years ago and the next I was following in the footsteps of Harry ‘Crossy’ Cross as he scrambled across the desolate wastes of a first world war no-man’s-land to recapture a couple of machine-guns with nothing more than a revolver and his own mighty resolution.

An artist's impression of Harry Cross earning his VC on the Somme in March 1918

‘Crossy’ has been a hero of mine for years, ever since a chance encounter with his grandson more than 20 years ago. As a Norfolk holder of the Victoria Cross, ‘Crossy’s’ brave action was familiar to me, but it was the character of the man that made his story so compelling. Here was an ordinary country boy from Shipdham, a carpenter’s son who left home at 15 for London in a bid to make his fortune. He failed. His life was one of constant struggle. Such was his poverty several of his children died in infancy. His second wife and two more children were killed during the London Blitz. And yet, he remained undaunted. As tough as they come, ‘Crossy’ battled on and achieved a second dose of fame when he loaned his VC to David Niven for the filming of ‘Carrington VC’.

'Crossy' presenting his VC to David Niven for the film 'Carrington VC'

The irony of it all is that the outstanding courage of a man who had nothing beyond his own stout heart has just made his descendants richer to the tune of around £185,000! For that’s the sum that his film star, celebrity-linked medal group made at auction in London this week. Hardly seems fair. But then, I suspect ‘Crossy’ would never have sold his treasured medals – and, incidentally, they included a Military Medal for bravery as well – at any price.

Harry's magnificent group of medals that made a small fortune at auction this week

I was glad, at least, that the publicity surrounding the sale meant that ‘Crossy’s’ story was able to reach a new audience. He deserves to be better known and more widely remembered and to that end the EDP and About Anglia did him proud.

Incidentally, in helping with the TV coverage, it was good to catch up with an old journalist friend. I’ve known Malcolm Robertson since the late 1970s when we were both relatively new to the game. Malcolm was covering Norwich City and I was following the fortunes and misfortunes of King’s Lynn Stars speedway team. Back then, we were also still fit enough to play a bit and one of my enduring footballing memories is of a fiery ‘Robbo’ sending off – for sheer incompetence – the match referee, one David Jennings who later went on to become his boss at Anglia!

Talking of Anglia, it should be worth checking out the news later in the week as they prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the Baedeker Blitz on Norwich. Along with BBC Look East, whose Mike Liggins popped round a couple of weeks back to do some filming, they are looking back on the raids that made such a devastating impact on the city. It will be interesting to see what their take is on a story that continues to reverberate all these years on.

On that same subject, next Saturday (April 28) will see a number of events taking place to commemorate the beginning of Norwich’s ordeal by fire in the spring and summer of 1942. A service of remembrance is being held in Earlham cemetery where so many of the victims of the early onslaught were buried (11am). And at the Norwich Arts Centre, where an exhibition of photographs chronicling the bombing continues until May, a day of talks, walks and activities is being held to mark one of the most significant anniversaries in the city’s recent history. I shall be joining blitz ghost photographer Nick Stone to discuss the raids and their impact on the lives of thousands of ordinary people. In the process, I suspect and certainly hope we will discover more insights about the raids from those who actually lived through those darkest of days.

The full programme for the arts centre open day, which is entirely free and runs from 10am to 4pm in St Benedict’s, is:

Arts Centre programme - Baedeker Raids 70th Anniversary Event


by steve

Back to the blitz…

I suppose it was you might call a bit of blitz serendipity. There I was in the leafy suburbs of London researching my next book about a Commando medic who won a posthumous Victoria Cross when suddenly I found myself transported back to familiar scenes: of rows of houses laid waste by a stick of bombs and families cowering in damp and dingy Anderson shelters while the ground shook beneath them. Only this time, the setting was not some terrace in Heigham or St Augustine’s, but a road I’d never seen or heard of before: Nightingale Road in Edmonton, north London. And while the site was strange to me, the story I heard recounted had an eerily recognisable ring to it.

It came about like this: I had just finished interviewing Derrick Cakebread, a former sniper in 45 Royal Marine Commando, about his wartime services with a particular focus on the subject of my book, Eric ‘Doc’ Harden VC, when we got side-tracked onto the blitz. Derrick had been living in Tottenham during the London Blitz and I wondered if he’d been bombed out. His wife, Muriel, was the first to answer: ‘No, he wasn’t, but I was!’

Eric 'Doc' Harden VC

In moments, we were back to the dark days of 1941 when air raids on London were a grim feature of daily life. As the story began to unfold, I asked Muriel what kind of shelter she was in: an Anderson, a Morrison or a surface shelter. ‘None of them,’ she sheepishly smiled. ‘We had an Anderson shelter, but we were in the house that night the bombs fell around us.’ She showed me a brief account she’d written of her experiences:

‘…my mother, sister and I came out of the shelter to make a cup of tea during a lull in the raid. We were in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil when the bombing became very bad, so we went into the cupboard under the stairs to shelter. We heard bombs dropping nearby, and some of the windows broke and a couple of doors came off. Dad, who was on patrol, came in with an air-raid warden and found an unexploded bomb on the lawn in the back garden, about four yards from the house. It was one of a stick of bombs, of which one had hit a shelter in Clifford Road, and another had demolished the house diagonally opposite us in Nightingale Road, killing the two young children and their parents who lived there. We each packed three pairs of knickers and three vests and got out over the back fences as we couldn’t leave by the front of the house because of ambulances and other vehicles at the house that had been bombed…’

Just reading those lines took me straight back to passages in my own book about the Baedeker raids on Norwich. It brought it home to me just how universal an experience the blitz was. And right now, there seems no escaping it. Muriel’s story may have been by way of a diversion, but it won’t be too long before I’ll be recording some of ‘Doc’ Harden’s pre-Commando experiences, as a St John Ambulance man during the London blitz. A Kentish man from Northfleet, he grew up along the banks of the Thames, an area that suffered a great deal of bomb damage throughout the war. And before joining up, he was regularly called into action, driving an ambulance to scenes of destruction in Northfleet and beyond.

But, as I say, that’s a story to come. At the moment, I’m busy charting his battlefield services from Normandy to the Dutch-German border with the occasional ‘blitz interlude’ as BBC Look East, About Anglia and Norwich Arts Centre all prepare to mark the city’s Baedeker anniversary at the end of the month. I’ll keep you posted as to what’s happening and when in future blogs, but, meanwhile, it’s back to ‘Doc’ and a D-Day that would help remove the threat of air raids on our cities once and for all.

Get in touch:

Harden of No-Man's Land


by steve

Trekking into controversy…

There are few more contentious aspects of the Norwich Blitz than the issue of ‘trekking’. Even now, 70 years on, the very mention of it is sufficient to provoke heated debate in some quarters, as I discovered at a recent event staged at Norwich Arts Centre.

The focus of my talk was morale and how well the city’s population stood up to the test of heavy and indiscriminate bombing. Based on my research conducted at the National Archives and interviews with people who lived through the blitz, I spoke of the authorities’ concern about the large numbers of people who were classified as ‘self-evacuees’ or ‘trekkers’. Figures varied, but it was reckoned that somewhere between 11,000-40,000 people abandoned the city, at least on a temporary basis, to sleep outside of Norwich following the first April raid.

What might appear an entirely natural response to a potentially lethal threat was frowned upon by some who detected in the withdrawal a lack of ‘moral fibre’. Most disturbing of all was the large number of ‘desertions’ from among the city’s Civil Defence workers, particularly fire-watchers. The result was a number of investigations and a small number of prosecutions.

This clearly proved too much for one woman in the audience. A girl at the time of the Baedeker raids, she was indignant at what she evidently considered a slur on the city’s good name. She said that she had never seen anybody leaving the city and had heard of nobody doing so. Her conclusion, therefore, was that the figures were either grossly exaggerated or a downright lie. Fortunately, however, there were others among those attending who were able to give a contrary view based on the personal experience of having been ‘trekkers’!

Scenes like this in Essex Street led many people to trek out of the city

I was reminded of this discussion the other day while talking with Ralph Gayton, whose aunt Hilda and cousins, Beryl, Jack and Margaret Lockwood were among the victims of the first raid. He told me how, as a result of the heavy casualties and damage wrought during two nights of bombing, he and his mother had joined others in Knowsley Road in the long walk out of the city. With a pram stuffed full of blankets, clothes and food, they had ‘trekked’ out to Harford Bridges and a field where they slept with many others beneath the stars.

It got me thinking. Where, I wonder, were the most popular ‘camping’ grounds for Norwich’s blitz refugees? During the course of my research I had heard tell of people tramping out along Plumstead Road East into open country. I had also heard of a procession of people retreating through Lakenham towards the villages of Caistor and Stoke Holy Cross. Then, there were the cases of people catching buses and trains out of the city to spend the nights with relatives. But were there favourite fields or woods that became gathering points for families fleeing the bombing?

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who can recall particular places that were used by the city’s army of ‘trekkers’ and would be fascinated to discover more about the whole ‘trekking’ experience. So, if you have a story to share please get in touch by pressing the ‘email me’ button on my website or by emailing me at: Your story could help fill an important gap in our understanding of civilian reaction to the frightful ordeal suffered by Norwich’s population during its worst spell of bombing of the Second World War.


by steve

Lies, damned lies and statistics…

How does that hoary old saying go, “lies, damned lies and statistics!” Well, Mark Twain’s famous old line came to mind the other day, though not quite in the manner originally intended, namely to prop up a weak argument. In my case, it was simply a measure of my frustration at trying to unravel the absolute truth over the tally of deaths and injuries that were connected with the Norwich Blitz.

The original graves in Norwich's Earlham cemetery

Now, I’ll readily admit that maths was never my strong point at school. In fact, I managed to confound my teachers at the CNS by failing my O Level  retake with a worse mark than in my original exam, despite having extra tuition! But even allowing for having a poor head for figures, I can’t help feeling that many more researchers will have shared my frustration at trying to track down the most definitive list of casualties, whether it be connected with actions fought on distant battlefields or air raids close to home. In this respect, I suspect Norwich is no different from many other blitzed cities.

Part of me feels that it shouldn’t matter too much, that we shouldn’t get hung up on whether 160 or 170 people died on the night of April 27/28, 1942 and that it’s the bigger picture that counts. But another part of me feels it matters a lot; it matters because it is an important aspect of trying to create an accurate picture of what occurred and because every death deserves to be remembered as an individual human tragedy.

What set me thinking about all of this was an email from Sue Bamford, mum of our future son-in-law Tom. She has been delving into her family history in recent years. Like many of others, she has unravelled painful and poignant connections with our country’s warring past; great uncles killed in the Great War. More recently, though she has discovered a tragic link with the second world war on the home front. Sarah Ann Sheldon, her late father’s maternal grandmother, is listed among the Norwich civilians who died as a result of the second Baedeker Blitz, the same raid that devastated a large portion of the city centre, including Curl’s (now Debenhams), Woolworth’s and Caley’s. What made her death unusual, however, was that she died not during the bombing, nor even of injuries sustained in the attack, but of a heart attack suffered shortly afterwards. She was 72.

Sue writes: “She died… after leaving their air raid shelter at 196 Nelson Street and seeing the devastation in the street. So I suppose she died because of the bombing but not directly from the bombing.”

It makes me wonder if there were any other cases like Sarah Sheldon. The shock and the stress must have been immense, especially among frail and elderly people. Their lives had been turned upside down and everything they had worked for had, in all too many cases, been destroyed.

Sue’s email had got me thinking and then two more things happened to focus my mind on those infernal casualty lists. Firstly, I received a letter from Blitz researcher Norman Bacon, and then, during a meeting with Ghost Blitz photographer Nick Stone, I came across a record of air raid deaths in the city that I had never seen before. But back to Norman.  He was querying the figures I cited in my book and wondered what my source had been. He also provided his own record of deaths. Interestingly, it differed not only from my own, but from those that have been quoted by previous Blitz historians, Joan Banger, Bob Collis and Frank Meeres. They all agree on 162 killed during the first April raid and 69 killed on the second raid two nights later. Initially, I confess, I was tempted to go with those figures myself, but in the end I decided to stick with my principles of relying on primary sources and used the figures that were contained in the Consolidated Report on the Effects of Heavy Air Attack on the City of Norwich, April and May 1942 which is held in the National Archives. This paper had been prepared in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and, therefore, had the advantage of being an original contemporary record. It gave the number of deaths as 158 in the first raid and 67 in the second. Norman, on the other hand, has 174 (broken down into 68 men, 78 women, 24 children and 4 servicemen) for the first and 59 (24 men, 31 women and 4 children) in the second. As yet, I am still waiting to discover the source for these figures and am looking forward to comparing them with the total contained in the private record that Nick has promised to pass on.

Earlham Cemetery Today

Of course, it is entirely possible that it will supply us with an entirely new set of statistics, thus muddying the water still further. Rather than helping us to find that elusive definitive casualty list it may simply add more unanswered questions. All of which makes me wonder whether we will ever know with certainty just how many people died and were injured during the terrible raids of 70 years ago. Ultimately, we may have to fall back on that unsatisfactory but honest solution by offering a range of figures provided by the various sources.

Earlham Cemetery Today

As I said at the start, “lies, damned lies and statistics!”


by steve

All roads lead to the Cathedral…

Strange how things happen. A call out of the blue opens up a whole new avenue of research. And then, lo and behold, it opens another door leading to fresh discoveries in a former avenue of research.

Well, that’s what’s just happened with my never-ending study of the Norwich Blitz, and I’ve got one man’s highly developed collecting instincts to thank for it all.

Owen Thompson is an inveterate ‘car-booter’ and a while back he came across a brown wallet at Banham. Nothing unusual in that, except that this one contained something far more valuable than money – a letter that harked back to the Second World War and, in particular, the June 1942 Baedeker raid on Norwich. Written by a wife to her husband, presumably serving overseas, it was a description of the events in their street, Aldryche Road, just off Plumstead Road (and incidentally, a stone’s throw from the first house my wife and I bought, in Hilary Avenue). It tells of the homes that were struck by incendiaries and of the efforts to fight the myriad fires that took hold. It is a wonderfully candid account, full of the kind of small human details that bring the past alive, and I shall be writing about it more fully in due course, so, watch this space.

As a result of Owen’s discovery and initial contact, via the good old EDP, I was able to invite him along to the book launch. But things were too busy there to talk properly and so we emailed one another and chatted on the telephone and at some point in our conversations he mentioned his interest in the Cathedral. Well, that’s under-stating it a bit. Obsession might be putting it a bit too strong, but his fascination for the city’s most magnificent building is deep and unbounded. He has been researching and lecturing about it for more years than he cared to mention (or, at least, if he did, I’ve forgotten how many he said!) All of which, naturally, brought us to our mutual interest in the Cathedral’s fortunate survival during that same raid, so graphically described in the letter he had found.

Norwich Cathedral during the war with air raid shelter visible

He, like me, had struggled to decipher Arthur Whittingham’s spidery hand-writing in reports held at the county records office. And he shared my view of Whittingham as one of the (previously) great unsung heroes of the Norwich Blitz. To me, the surveyor to the fabric of the Cathedral and its senior fireguard was the man chiefly responsible for its survival on that June night when incendiaries set fire to the north transept. Meeting yesterday we were able to share our research. Owen had not seen the account held in the National Archives and I had not seen some of the photographs of the Cathedral in wartime, fascinating pictures that showed air raid shelters that I never knew existed.

More than that he was also able to correct an error I had made in my chapter on the Cathedral. In citing the various bomb incidents that had taken place in and around The Close prior to the June raid, I stated that the Cathedral had escaped damage during the two April raids. Well, it turns out that it did not. In fact, one window was smashed, presumably the result of blast damage, during the second raid on April 29. More details about this are promised in due course which will allow me to revise that section of the book for any future editions. As I said earlier, the research doesn’t stop. It goes on and on, constantly throwing up fresh surprises and revealing new insights into the raids.

Another photo of Norwich Cathedral showing a public shelter

So, if you spot something that you don’t think is quite right or you think you can shed more light on any of the incidents described in the book, don’t hesitate to get in touch, either via the response button on my website or by contacting me via email at or by telephoning 01603 435624. And remember also, I’m still on the lookout for more personal memories of the Blitz and any further photographs related to the bombing.


by steve

Norwich Blitz Exhibition at Norwich Arts Centre

Stage fright temporarily mastered, it was great to see a ‘sold-out’ audience at the Norwich Arts Centre on Friday night for the talks that marked the beginning of a special exhibition commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Baedeker Blitz on the city.

Thanks to everyone who helped make the event such a success. It was especially good to see among the audience people who lived through those dark days; people like Ralph Gayton, whose memory of the initial assault appears on my blog, Vic Hopes, who as a boy growing up in Montcalm Road remembers the ground surrounding the nearby water tower carpeted with incendiaries, and Judy Ball (nee Swain), who appears in my book as the girl in the ‘siren suit’ and whose father captured many of the most iconic images of the Norwich blitz.

Judy Swain in her 'siren suit'

The exhibition staged at the Arts Centre in St Benedict’s Street is a tribute not just to the courage and stoicism of thousands of people who endured the nights of terror and their troubling aftermath but to George Swain’s determination to record the scenes of desolation all around him. He was the only one of the city’s photographers, press men included, who was brave, or possibly foolhardy, enough to photograph the bombing even as it was happening. Pedalling off on his bike, he ventured to the very heart of the worst fires, around Westwick Street, and his pictures endure as a graphic representation of Norwich’s worst ordeal of the war.

George Swain captures the bombing in Westwick Street

But I was struck by the sheer breadth of his work, some of it not without a degree of black humour. Not least the image of a helmeted assortment of wardens smiling sheepishly beside the entrance to a subterranean post marked with a placard: ‘Hitler’s Grave’. Then there is the shot of a woman in bizarre gasmask pose. I was surprised at just how many photographs were new to me. But I was not alone. Judy Ball confessed there were images on display she had never seen before, including one of her father in the shadows of his own wardens’ post. It was situated close to her old family home in Park Lane and featured a telephone she remembered inadvertently calling as a child.

I also discovered images credited to the Tester Collection about which I knew absolutely nothing (if anyone can tell me something about who or what Tester is or stands for, I would be pleased to hear from them) and I marvelled anew at the paintings of Polish soldier, Stanislaw Mikula. Together with Philippa Ruth Miller, he stands out as the greatest of Norwich’s war artists. His works, most notably one inspired by the destruction of Caley’s factory, have a haunting beauty.

Stanislaw Mikula's painting of the destruction of Caley's chocolate factory

So, too, do Nick Stone’s mesmerising Ghost Blitz photographs. Around 70 of them are contained on a perpetual ‘loop’ that forms a perfect counter-point to the contemporary photographs all around. Their spellbinding power was evident in the crowds that gathered to watch the screen as one ‘then and now’ shot faded into another. Proof indeed that a book is needed to ensure that these images are preserved as a permanent and graphic record of the changes wrought by the bombing 70 years ago.

Congratulations, therefore, to Holly Rumble and Stuart Hobday at the arts centre for having the courage, the commitment and the gumption to mark this grisly yet significant anniversary in our city’s history with this most powerful and thought-provoking exhibition. It runs until May 5, so no excuses for not getting along and discovering just what it is we should be remembering at the remembrance service that is planned for next month.

Norwich Blitz exhibition at Norwich Arts Centre