Early in the morning of Wednesday, April 29, 1942, York suffered its worst air raid of the war. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. In the previous few days, the Luftwaffe had attacked two other cathedral cities, Norwich and Bath.
These were the so-called Baedecker raids. The story had it that Hitler, enraged by the RAF’s attacks on Lubeck and Rostock, picked up a Baedecker guidebook and ordered that every historic place in England marked with three stars be bombed in retaliation.
Unopposed for much of the York raid, the German aircrew dive-bombed ordinary streets, strafing them with machine gun fire. The assault had greater aims than to terrorise the civilian population and lower morale, however. The Luftwaffe bombarded strategic targets – the railway line, the station, the Carriage Works, the airfield. York Minster was not touched.
More than 70 German planes were involved in the raid: Junkels, Heinkels and Dorniers. Allied planes shot down four enemy aircraft. Beginning at 2.30am and finishing 90 minutes later – although the official all-clear was not given until 4.46am – the raid left 92 people dead and hundreds injured.
Across the city there were scenes of devastation. Houses were destroyed, schools wrecked, the Guildhall and St Martin-le-Grand Church on Coney Street burnt out. The Bar Convent had collapsed, killing five nuns. Pavements were littered with rubble and shattered glass. Huge craters scarred the streets and Clifton airfield.
That morning the city went back to work. As the Daily Mail put it: ‘The gates of York still stand high, like the spirit of its people who, after nearly two hours of intense bombing and machine-gunning, were clearing up today.’