The travel guide bombings

The Baedeker Blitz, occurring between April and May 1942, marked a retaliatory effort by the German Luftwaffe against English cities during World War II. Named after Baedeker tourist guides used to select targets, these raids aimed to counter the RAF's civilian-focused bombing strategy initiated after the devastating Lübeck bombing in March 1942. Unlike previous attacks, targets were chosen for their cultural significance rather than military value, intensifying civilian morale impacts.

Despite sustained raids over two years, the attempt failed due to RAF advancements in night fighter capability and minimal damage inflicted compared to previous Blitz campaigns. Nonetheless, the raids resulted in over 1,600 civilian casualties and extensive property damage, underscoring the toll of wartime conflict on civilian populations.


By the winter of 1941/1942, both the British and German strategic bombing campaigns had reached a pivotal juncture.

The German Blitz, a relentless nine-month onslaught of night bombing, had ravaged London and other British cities, culminating in May 1941 when the Luftwaffe redirected its focus to the Eastern Front.

Subsequently, sporadic hit-and-run raids on British coastal towns became the norm for the Luftwaffe. Concurrently, the RAF's night bombing offensive had faced setbacks, as revealed by the Butt Report in August 1941, leading to a lull in attacks by Christmas 1941.

Bomb damage to residential homes during the London Blitz.

However, the RAF's bombing campaign saw a resurgence in effectiveness with the resumption of attacks in March 1942, notably marked by the bombing of Lübeck.

This resurgence was fueled by several factors, including the introduction of new heavy bombers such as the Stirling, Halifax, and Lancaster, along with advancements in navigation systems like Gee and Oboe.

Additionally, the appointment of Air Vice-Marshal Harris brought fresh leadership and strategic vision to the RAF's bombing operations.

The Lübeck Cathedral in flames in the aftermath of an RAF bombing raid, March 1942.

The Baedeker Blitz | The National WWII Museum Blog (

Prior to this resurgence, the RAF had primarily pursued precision attacks on individual targets like factories and power stations, with limited success and high costs.

Following the Luftwaffe's devastating November 1940 attack on Coventry, the RAF shifted its tactics, opting for concentrated area bombardment aimed at inflicting maximum damage to both infrastructure and civilian morale.

This approach, characterized by the use of incendiary bombs and the adoption of the bomber stream tactic, heralded a new phase in the RAF's bombing strategy, emphasizing the psychological impact on enemy populations alongside physical destruction.

The aftermath of the Coventry Blitz. Following this bombing, the RAF changed its own bombing tactics.

Coventry Blitz in colour 1940 (


The devastation inflicted upon Lübeck and later Rostock in successive RAF bombings sent shockwaves through both the German leadership and populace. Until then, they had perceived themselves relatively unscathed by RAF attacks. Joseph Goebbels, reporting the aftermath, highlighted the scale of destruction and expressed concern over the potential demoralizing effect on the population, signaling a shift in perception regarding the RAF's campaign.

Hitler's response to the bombings was one of fury and retaliation. He demanded a more aggressive stance from the Luftwaffe, prioritizing attacks likely to maximize civilian casualties. The directive explicitly called for terror attacks on civilian centers outside London, signaling a deliberate strategy shift towards targeting cultural and civilian hubs.

Following the raid on Bath, Goebbels revealed Hitler's intent to intensify these terror attacks, aiming to exhaust the English population's resilience. This approach sought to bring the English to capitulation by targeting cultural and civilian landmarks, intending to undermine morale and provoke surrender.

The raids, dubbed "Baedeker raids," originated from a German propagandist's comment, referencing the popular travel guides. Gustav Braun von Stumm's statement inadvertently acknowledged the deliberate targeting of cultural and historic sites, contrary to the German leadership's preferred narrative of retaliatory measures.

Goebbels, furious at the implication, sought to distance German efforts from attacks on cultural heritage, emphasizing the intended retaliation against British bombings. Stumm's remark prompted internal measures to avoid similar admissions, underscoring the delicate balance in framing German military actions.

Initial raids

In the early stages of the Baedeker Blitz, the German Luftwaffe targeted several key cities in England, aiming to inflict significant damage and undermine civilian morale. The responsibility for carrying out these attacks fell upon bomber groups of Luftflotte 3, particularly KG 2 and KG 6, which were formed from the earlier Küstenfliegergruppe 106 maritime aviation group.

These bomber groups were led by the pathfinders of I./KG 100. Each raid involved the coordination of 30 to 40 aircraft, meticulously planned to maximize their effectiveness. To achieve this, each aircraft would fly two sorties per night, with raids divided into two periods lasting 60 to 90 minutes, separated by two or three hours.

The first city to bear the brunt of the Baedeker Blitz was Exeter, an ancient county town in Devon with a rich heritage of historic buildings. On the night of Saint George's Day, April 23-24, 1942, Exeter experienced its first devastating raid.

Although the initial attack caused relatively little damage, a second raid the following night proved far more severe, resulting in over 80 fatalities. The raids on Exeter marked the beginning of a series of assaults on historic cities across England.

Following the raids on Exeter, the Luftwaffe targeted Bath on the nights of April 25-26 and April 26-27. These attacks caused widespread damage to the city and resulted in approximately 400 casualties.

Meanwhile, other cities such as Norwich and York also faced intense bombardment, with significant loss of life and damage to historic landmarks. The raids on Bath, Norwich, and York occurred in close succession, coinciding with the RAF's own offensive against Rostock.

As the Baedeker Blitz continued into May 1942, the Luftwaffe intensified its attacks on British cities. On May 3-4, Exeter suffered further heavy damage, including significant destruction to the city center and the south side of the Cathedral, leading to 164 deaths.

The following night, the Luftwaffe targeted Cowes, a town of both cultural and military significance due to its shipyard. Subsequent raids on Norwich, Hull, Poole, Grimsby, and Canterbury inflicted further devastation, contributing to the overall toll of civilian casualties and destruction of property.

Despite the Luftwaffe's efforts, the raids failed to achieve their intended objectives. The Axis forces encountered heavy losses for minimal damage inflicted, as the RAF's defenses grew stronger and the British populace displayed resilience in the face of adversity. Furthermore, the Axis's need for reinforcements in other theaters of war, such as North Africa and the Eastern Front, limited the scale and duration of further operations.

In response to the raids, Winston Churchill urged caution in publicizing the events, emphasizing the importance of maintaining morale and avoiding the perception that the Germans were successfully retaliating for British raids. This stance reflected the government's efforts to downplay the impact of the attacks and maintain public confidence in the face of adversity.

Further attacks

The term "Baedeker Blitz" is often associated with the concentrated series of raids on five cities - Exeter, Bath, Canterbury, Norwich, and York - during April and May 1942.

These attacks, characterized by their targeting of cities with rich cultural heritage, marked a significant phase in the aerial campaign. However, beyond these infamous raids, the Luftwaffe continued its assault on cities deemed culturally significant for the subsequent two years.

In June 1942, the campaign extended to include Ipswich, Poole, and Canterbury once more, alongside targets such as Southampton, Norwich (again), and Weston-super-Mare. July saw intensified raids, with three attacks each on Birmingham and Middlesbrough, alongside one on Hull - all strategic industrial centers crucial to the British war effort.

By August, the Luftwaffe revisited its "Baedeker" targets, striking Norwich, Swansea, Colchester, and Ipswich.

September brought attacks on Sunderland, a bustling port and industrial hub, as well as King's Lynn, a town of little military significance. Although these raids involved fewer aircraft - typically around 20 per sortie - they signified a decline in Luftwaffe effectiveness.

This decline was attributable to the strengthening of Britain's night-fighter defences and the mounting casualties suffered by the German bomber crews. By autumn, losses had taken a heavy toll, with KG 2 losing 65 of its 88 crews, prompting a halt to the offensive.

In a bid to maintain pressure, the Luftwaffe experimented with various tactics, including low-level and high-altitude attacks. In August 1942, modified Ju 86P bombers conducted high-altitude runs over southern England, wreaking havoc with impunity for several weeks.

One such raid on Bristol on 28 August resulted in 48 fatalities. However, these operations were short-lived as the RAF countered with a squadron of similarly modified Spitfires, engaging in the highest air battle of the war.

On October 31, 1942, thirty German fighter-bombers, escorted by sixty fighters, executed a low-level attack on Canterbury, dropping 28 bombs and resulting in 30 fatalities, with three attacking aircraft shot down.

By the year's end, casualties from these raids numbered 3,236 killed and 4,148 injured. However, the Luftwaffe's strength in the west had waned, contrasted with the RAF's growing capabilities, consistently launching raids of 200 or more aircraft on Germany.

In 1943, Luftwaffe operations in the western front were rejuvenated, with Luftflotte 3 reinforced to full strength. In January, KG 2 and KG 6 each possessed 60 bombers (Do217s and Ju 88s, respectively), complemented by SKG 10, a fast bomber wing consisting of Fw 190 fighter-bombers.

This revitalized offensive included a raid on London on January 17-18, followed by a low-level attack on January 20, and later, in March, contributing to the Bethnal Green Tube disaster, resulting in 178 fatalities.

Throughout the year, raids targeted a range of locations, some strategically significant like Southampton, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Hull, Sunderland, and Newcastle, while others, such as Eastbourne, Hastings, Maidstone, Cheltenham, Chelmsford, Bournemouth, and Lincoln, held little strategic value.

Innovative tactics were experimented with, such as the use of delayed-action anti-personnel "butterfly bombs" in a June 1943 raid on Grimsby, causing 163 civilian casualties as unsuspecting residents returned home after the all-clear signal.

In November 1943, following the extensive bombardment of Hamburg by the RAF and USAAF and the implementation of the innovative "Window" radar countermeasure, the Luftwaffe orchestrated a retaliatory raid on Norwich, employing Duppel, its counterpart to neutralize British radar.

Despite the successful jamming of radar signals, the raid inflicted relatively minor damage on the city. As the conflict progressed, the Luftwaffe faced mounting challenges due to the attrition of experienced aircrew, leading to their replacement with less seasoned personnel. This change contributed to a decline in the effectiveness of Luftwaffe operations over time.

By the conclusion of 1943, the Luftwaffe had conducted approximately 20 raids, dropping over 10 tons of bombs. However, the cumulative impact of these raids resulted in 2,372 fatalities and 3,450 injuries, as documented in a report by Lord Cherwell. This report highlighted the disparity between the Luftwaffe's bombing campaign and the RAF's sustained aerial operations, with the latter dropping a staggering 136,000 tons of bombs during the same period.

Notably, a single RAF raid on Berlin, occurring concurrently with the publication of the report, unleashed 2,480 tons of ordnance—exceeding the entire annual bombing output of the Luftwaffe. Moreover, the report underscored that the Luftwaffe's raids primarily targeted coastal towns, and bombing-related fires represented only a fraction of the incidents handled by the National Fire Service.

The Baedeker-type raids, characterized by their focus on cities of cultural significance, ceased in 1944 due to their ineffectiveness. The German leadership recognized that these raids incurred unsustainable losses without yielding significant strategic advantages.

Consequently, in January 1944, the Luftwaffe redirected its efforts towards London, designating it as the primary target for retaliatory strikes. Operation Steinbock, launched on January 21, marked an intensive assault on London, leveraging the Luftwaffe's entire available bomber fleet stationed in the western front.

However, despite the considerable investment of resources and manpower, Operation Steinbock failed to achieve substantial results, resulting in significant losses for the Luftwaffe with minimal impact on the targeted objectives.

Subsequently, the focus shifted towards targeting ports suspected to play crucial roles in the anticipated Allied invasion of France, while London became the focal point for Germany's V-weapons campaign.

Further reading