The Wartime Legacy of Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral Today

As one of the oldest buildings in the city, Exeter Cathedral is a fortress of history and culture. Its origins date back to the 12th century, as you can see here, but the cathedral’s legacy extends well beyond that. On the 4th of May, 1942, the Luftwaffe bombed the St. James Chapel in one of the Baedeker Raids. This event is commemorated in a modern stained glass window to the right of the west door, which depicts St. Peter himself protecting his church from falling bombs caught in the beams of air raid spotlights. Exeter Cathedral stands today as a cultural monument to English solidarity.


The Baedeker Raids

Beginning in April of 1942, the “Baedeker Blitz,” so named for Hitler’s alleged use of the Baedeker tourist guide in planning his attacks, started as a retaliation for the RAF’s bombing of Lübeck. It was a German campaign designed to target areas with cultural or historical rather than military significance. At about 1:36 in the morning of the 4th of May, air raid ‘red’ was declared, and the Luftwaffe began its bombing. Nearly 20 fires were reported by 2:00, and 20 minutes later, the phone and light systems went down. When the Luftwaffe departed, approximately 70 minutes after they’d begun, much of the city lay ablaze, and hundreds of people were dead or injured. Over 1,000 houses, as well as numerous shops, pubs, warehouses, offices, and even the city library were completely obliterated.


The Aftermath

After the bombing, German radio declared Exeter to be “the jewel of the West.” The Exeter Cathedral had been hit by only one high-explosive bomb. The St. James Chapel, the monument room above it, and two flying buttresses had been destroyed. However, many people regarded this with amazement. If the bomb had hit a few feet over, it could have caused the entire ceiling to cave in, destroying much of the cathedral. That it hadn’t seemed almost an act of Providence.


Though fires continued throughout the next few days, and though many precious historical monuments and even more precious lives had been lost, Exeter survived. The whole reconstruction process took around 20 years. Today, you can walk around the city and see both the reconstruction and the scars. You can explore Exeter Cathedral, order a cream tea in its café, and contemplate the near-century of history surrounding you.



Text and photos © Ben Koses