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Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >> │

Letter about the Exeter blitz from Arthur to Harold and Dorothy


Exeter
May 17th 1942
Dear Harold

Many thanks for your letter, we certainly had an anxious time during our blitzes, to put it mildly, and have been pretty busy since the last one, which was of course the worst. I will try and tell you all about it.

It was not a nice spot, as one had the feeling that the whole lot might come on top of you any moment, and when I heard the yard behind me fill with glass and debris, I thought it was coming down. Still it did not not not one of our Wardens was hurt, and the telephone was intact all the time, one of our posts had a direct hit, but all the wardens attached to this were in the streets and got away alright. During this raid we have very few incendiary bombs, and what few there were, dropped in a residential area on the outskirts of the city, where there were big fires. The H.F.s did considerable damage over a wide area and about 80 people lost their lives, and about the same number injured.

After this we had a weeks lull. On the Saturday night I went to bed with a feeling that something was going to happen, and left with a feeling that something was going to happen, and left my clothes very ready put on. Well the first Siren went about midnight, and I was practically dressed before the last one had finished, and I was practically dressed before the last one had finished, and at once went out into our road, which is my beat except when on post duty. Fires had already started on the Heavitree side and there had been several big explosions, from then on for 70 minutes hell was let loose over the City. First showers of incendiaries, then the dive of the planes and the H.E.s on every direction. In less than 15 minutes we had fires all around us, all telephones had gone. One of the Garages at the top of a neighbours garden was alight as was that big house in Dix’s Field which overlooks our place. The wind being the right way the garage fire soon lit the next wooden shed, and one by one they caught until the one next to mine started. We could do nothing, and as my car was in the garage, and as it did not seem to matter where one was, I decided to try and get it out on to the road. There was another warden with me in our road, and after some deliberation we made a dash up the slope, getting down flat on the way. I got into the car, he gave it a push and I let her rip down the hill onto the road. During all this time he had dealt with one or two incendiaries, but we might just as well left them, there were so many we could not get at and the wind was blowing sparks and burning debris, from far away. About the time I went to the car, this I did not know until after, my neighbour Cox, was up under the wall throwing water on my garage roof and his. He had several tubs full at the top of his garden. Then the Raiders went, and I dashed up the garden shouting to the neighbours to bring all the water they could, I had two pales in the garage, and started on these, putting out the raspberry canes which were burning about 4 yds from the garage, and then sat about the next shed which was the great danger. All the women turned out and carried water faster than I could use it, I got the fire out and saved the garage.

When the Raiders past went, my mate who is younger than I am, went off to try and get the fire engine, as it looked as though all Archibald Road would go, as the garages at the end were burning fiercely. He had to go right down to the Exe Bridge, but he got an Engine and came back on it. They soon made Archibald Road safe. At this I thought I would go to the post and see how others have fared and if I could help in any way. I found that this had been partly demolished and was on fire, but that all the Wardens were alive and unhurt. All the buildings in Southernhay, Bedford Circus were alight, I seemed to be the main street in the City further on. There was nothing I could do, I went back and found that houses in Barnfield Road were catching one by one, and that people were getting furniture out in the road, an engine arrived and I helped run out the hose.

Then the procession started, men women and children from the Paris Street and Newtown area, which we found later was all gone. Just what they stood up in and any small belongings they could pick up. I turned a lot into Archibald Rd, and the people took them in, we also got the bowling club pavilion open, and put a lot in there.

By now it was getting on for 7.a.m. and I thought that a bath and breakfast would be welcome, as I had promised to report to the Surveyors people at 8.30. Up to now I had felt fine and had kept cool and did not think that I was any worse for the experience. There was Coffee ready on the stove, so I got a cup of this, when I felt the reaction so I laced this with rum, which pulled me together again.

Then a bath, change and a big breakfast put me right.

I don’t think that I told you that I had agree to be one of the two Surveyors Wardens for our group, so I went to their office about 8.30 and spent the next two days trawling missing people if possible or getting working parties from the Military to dig for those who were trapped.

I should have told you that the military arrived about 9.30, a R.E.Major with 200 men, he said that he had 1000 more standing by. They took over right away, my mate and I kept them informed where to dig and how many to look for. No one was got out of alive, in most cases just charred bones. Then we went on to safes and valuables. This was done by the infantry, meantime the R.E’s were demolishing dangerous buildings, first in the High Street and then in Bedford Circus. The idea being to get the main bus routes cleared as soon as possible.

Well now has to the damage, we were very lucky in our road, as they were in the similar road behind us. These two roads now stand as a little oasis in the midst of burnt and demolished buildings, and should from now on be one of the safest places in England. Our damage was broken windows, and most of the houses have holes in the roof debris thrown up by the H.E’s which fell near, and one was not 40 yards away, but fortunately just behind the wall where the ground fell away.

I have not been all over the city yet, but in the centre which is our group, both sides of the High Street, from London Inn Square Queen St, is gone to a great depth. Practically all Paris St, with Newtown and all the Courts behind this. From Queen St to South St, all shops stand, as does the Guildhall. South St is completely gone to a great depth, as is the top end of Fore St to below the market. The Cathedral still stands but had a direct hit on the South Side, and is in an awful mess, practically all the windows gone. The Globe Hotel burnt out and so on. The damage is very widespread all over the City, and hundreds of houses are burnt out or blasted to pieces. The most amazing thing is the casualties, and that we have not got the exact number, it is almost certain that the fatal ones will not exceed 250. The injured I do not know about, except at a very great number were of a minor nature and were sent home after treatment.

Our local fire services were out at once, and showed up very well, but were totally inadequate to deal with the fires. By daylight the N.F.S. were streaming into the City, and the worst fires were soon got in hand, though fires kept starting up again all through the week. Even now some buildings are smoking and the bricks and trouble almost red hot.

All our first Aid Posts were manned, but as the phones went at the beginning, did not get any messages through, and kept in what shelter they could find. After the Raiders passed they had a busy time.

Many rescue parties came in from the Rural Districts, from Dorset Somerset and Devon, but as the Military took over so early on Monday and had unlimited men and tackle, they were not wanted.

I stayed with the Surveyors people all that week, and got a number of safes out, song with the contents more or less intact, but in most cases nothing but ashes. Most of the time I had the same Tommies, six from the Queens, all East End Cockneys, and I would guess of the criminal class. They took some watching, as where one idea was what they could get for themselves. You would have been amused with one called Matty, just a private, but self appointed N.C.O. of my Little party. He could and did select the back out of safes, as if it was his trade. It was very amusing at times but pretty tiring being on one's feet all day in the dust and muck. After a week I went away on my own business from Monday until Wednesday, as much is anything to get away from it all, after that I gave them the rest of the week. The Military finished last night, so I shall get on with my normal work on Monday.

Them I am afraid that this is a terrible rigmarole, I could write pages and what has happened, is still not tell you all.

Most of the Wardens showed up well, but of course we had a few who funked it and have never been seen since. In the whole city only one Warden was killed and either one Policeman or a special, though several were injured. I believe that the Fire Brigade got off without a casualty.

You would not know Exeter, even I find it hard to locate where well known shops stood. There will be huge open spaces when all is cleared, and the City Authorities have a fine chance to rebuild, with a modern shopping centre.
I hope that you may never have a similar experience in Boston. I am glad I've been through it as it had to be, as I had often wondered how I should stick it. All the the services to who I have spoken, from Plymouth, Bristol and other places agree that they Blitz on Exeter what's the worst that any city has had so far.

I am very fit after it all, and I hope that the day is not far distant when we can look back on it all as a bad dream, and have an old-fashioned holiday together. Meantime take care of yourself and don't overwork.

Give my love to Dorothy.

Yours ever.

Arthur

 

Reproduced with the permission of John Orchard who wrote – Whilst going through old photographs I have come across this letter dated 17th May 1942 from Arthur to Harold and Dorothy in Plymouth. I do not know who these people were but must have been known to my mother who lived in Archibald Road, which is referenced in the letter. Interesting reading.Aerial view of CathedralThis aerial view of the Catheral shows the bomb damaged South Street (right) and the remains of Catherine's Almshouses (left). Photo Bertram Arden.Blitz letterThe four page letter to Harold and Dorothy.

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