Norwich in World War 2

by | Jul 6, 2023

Norwich, in World War 2, like many other cities around the country, was significantly impacted. It suffered many bombings but its people had a tremendous involvement in the war effort despite this. The city played a significant part in what was a terrifying period in world history. The face of the city changed forever and many historical landmarks were lost to the bombs. The people had to become accustomed to dealing with widespread death and destruction. All of this while worrying about loved ones fighting overseas.

Bonds in Norwich burns after being hit by a German Bomb – image courtesy of InvisibleWorks

The war carved its way into the history of the city, as well as the memories of those who witnessed it. There are many accounts that survive that give us an insight into the horrors of this period of history. Alongside this, are the occasional moments of light relief and camaraderie.

July is the month in 1940 that the war really started for Norwich. So we thought it was the perfect time to take an in-depth look into what was going on in the area at the time.

The Bombing Raids of 1940

On 9th July 1940, at around 5pm in the afternoon, two German bomber planes (a Dornier 17 and a Junker 88) buzzed over the city of Norwich. A sharp, whistling sound filled the air, then chaos. 11 bombs had been dropped on the city. On Salhouse Road, a warehouse was in flames, several incendiary bombs having struck the building. A packer named Harold Leonard Dye and driver Arthur Shreeves had been working in the loading dock, unaware of the threat. Both were killed instantly in the explosion. Works belonging to Boulton and Paul, on Riverside Road, were hit by high explosives. Several buildings from the business were obliterated. A little further up on Carrow Hill, 40 ft of the medieval city walls were flattened by further bombs.

Sadly, at the time, the employees at the Colman’s Factory and offices were leaving work for home and no air raid siren was sounded. As a result, they had no warning and 26 people were killed, with many others injured.

On the 19th & 30th of July there were further bombing raids from lone aircraft. The first hit the North of the city. Large swathes of Magdalen St and the surrounding area were devastated including the garage belonging to the Cat and Fiddle Inn. There was a single casualty on this occasion, an elderly lady who died a few days later in hospital. The bombing on the 30th hit Surrey Street. Ber Street, and the surrounding side roads. Once again, no warning was sounded and four or five houses completely collapsed, killing the occupants inside.

There were 11 further raids over the course of the remaining year over the city and 61 people died as a result. There was a fair amount of destruction, especially around the area of our current train station. Most of the brunt of the attacks were borne by houses, shops and pubs.

Part of Upper St Giles St, devastated by a German bomb – image courtesy of InvisibleWorks

In 1941 there were a few other attacks, although there were far fewer casualties at 20 lives lost. Significantly more infrastructure damage occurred, however. One event of note was on the 2nd April 1941 when a large fragment of a bomb crashed through the roof of the Shirehall during a quarters session. It landed right in the middle of the occupied courtroom. Although the people inside were surprised, thankfully no one was hurt. From August until the beginning of the Baedeker raids in 1942, there was a period of relative peace in the city with no more enemy attacks. This gave the people of Norwich a chance to pick up some of the pieces.

The Baedeker Raids 1942

In February 1942, the Area Bombing Directive was issued to the RAF. This cleared them to bomb civilian targets rather than military ones. The aim of these raids was to reduce morale among the citizens of Germany. It was a desperate attempt in the face of overwhelming German attacks on British cities and across Europe. The idea was to show the German people that they were not safe in this war. Hitler was putting them in danger as much as he was the people in the countries he was attacking.

On 28th March 1942, 234 RAF planes left British shores and flew over Germany to the port city of Lubeck. The city was a cultural hub, with little military importance, and was home to lots of historic timber buildings. The bombs loaded onto the planes were a mixture of Blockbusters, (designed to “open up” buildings with a large explosion to allow the incendiaries to be more effective) and large incendiary bombs. Not expecting an attack, Lubeck had few defences and the bombing was hugely effective. 30% of Lubeck was destroyed (German sources say 1425 buildings were completely destroyed and over 300 people killed.)

St Julian’s Church, home to the famous anchorage, lies in ruins after a direct hit – image courtesy of InvisibleWorks

The German leadership were horrified. Joseph Goebbels was put in charge of the interior committee of Lubeck. Hitler personally sanctioned “terror attacks of a retaliatory nature where the greatest possible effect on the civil population was to be expected.” This was a “tit for tat” attitude. The Allies had been seen by the Nazis to have crossed a line in terms of war etiquette and now the gloves were off. The Germans took the Baedeker Guidebooks, a series of tourist maps and guidebooks of the cultural cities of England, and used them to focus air raids on those cities. Exeter, Bath, Canterbury, York and Norwich were selected as targets.

On the 27th April 1942, as night fell over the city, nine months after the last bombs had been dropped on Norwich, a fleet of German Bombers made their way over the city. They started by releasing flares over the city from the leading planes, lighting the targets for the following bombers. For over an hour, wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers dropped their payload on Norwich. The damage was widespread across several districts but the main focus was on residential areas. Hundreds of homes were destroyed or severely damaged and 162 people were killed with around 400 more injured. Around 50 tonnes of explosives were dropped.

A second raid came two days later on the 29th. This time, the people were prepared and thankfully the number of casualties were far lower. 69 people were killed, with most people escaping into shelters around the city. The city did sadly lose St Bartholomew’s Church and St Benedict’s Church during these raids. Throughout May there were 3 smaller bombing raids. It was also during this month that the Duke of Kent paid a visit to the city to meet some of the victims in hospital. In a follow-up letter, he expressed his sorrow at the destruction in the city and praised the inhabitants for their tenacity.

The Fire Raid – June 1942 and the end of the German Air raids

On the 27th June 1942, another large attack was mounted on Norwich. The attack was widespread over the city, with a large concentration of incendiary bombers focused on the cathedral. No less than 850 bombs were dropped solely on this building. Through the bravery of the city firewatchers and the fact that under the roof tiles was an arch of brick and stone, the main cathedral building sustained very little damage. Several houses on the cathedral grounds were completely gutted. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital elsewhere suffered the loss of several buildings during this attack. Amazingly, only 16 people were killed. Archaeologically however, this was the most devastating attack on the city as we lost many churches. Some of them had parts dating to Saxon times. Many other ecclesiastical buildings including the anchorage of St Julian of Norwich were also lost.

After this raid, the German attempts to bomb the city became less effective. The number of aircraft sent started to dwindle. Many losses to the Luftwaffe were suffered thanks to the work of the RAF and the Anti Aircraft guns around the city. One notable incident is on the 5th September 1942 when a lone bomber dove over Magdalen Street. With bombs dropping on either side and machine guns strafing the street, shoppers scattered in all directions. Five people were killed and many injured as a result. The month after, in October, the King came to visit the city to inspect the damage and meet the local survivors. He was shown 43 streets throughout the city and got a picture of just how much of Norwich was now lying in rubble.

During the last remaining years of the war, there were few attacks from German bombers. Several V1 and V2 rocket-propelled bombs were aimed at Norwich. Not one hit their target however and most fell harmlessly into open fields in Norfolk. The closest landed on the golf course in Lower Hellesdon.

On 24th November 1944, an American Aircraft, the “Lady Jane”, started experiencing mechanical issues. It accidentally struck the tower of the St Phillips Church on Heigham Road with its wing tip. The plane started to dive towards a row of houses on Heigham Street and would have struck them were it not for the bravery of the pilot, Ralph Dooley, who remained in the plane to direct its crash into unoccupied land around the railway. The crew were all killed in the crash and, today, a gold plaque sits on the same row of houses commemorating their gallantry.

The Women’s Land Army in Norwich

Before WW2, Britain was mostly importing food from other countries rather than relying on its own farms. This changed with the outbreak of war. Suddenly, ships were unable to cross the channel with supplies due to the threat of German U-boats torpedoing transport ships coming into the country. Britain had to change, and a sudden expansion of the country’s agricultural land and work began. The issue was that, at this time, men still held most of the jobs, especially in farming. Most men, however, were currently overseas fighting in the war and so there weren’t enough workers to put this ambitious new project into action. The decision was made to resurrect the Women’s Land Army. This was a workforce composed entirely of women (a surprising number of which came from Urban backgrounds). The WLA had been brought about during WWI when a similar issue had arisen.

Women rallied to work the fields and farms.

Posters went up around Norwich and the surrounding towns asking women to sign up. In the earlier days between 1939 and 1941, service was voluntary. By December 1941, women were being conscripted. The work varied massively from draining land to reclaiming it, dairy work, rat-catching to protect crops and back-breaking fieldwork. The workers had to wear specific uniforms and mostly boarded in hostels quickly constructed on the farmland. They were paid about 10s less a day than any men doing the same work and occasionally, by 1943 had to work alongside Italian prisoners of war. For those women posted with other women or near an RAF base, a social life during their time working was possible. For those who were alone on an older farm with elderly farming couples, it could be an isolated and lonely experience.

Regardless of the uncomfortable positions, most members of the WLA were there out of a sense of duty. Many had seen male members of their families go to war and were feeling the drive to contribute in any way they could. Due to conservative attitudes at the time, there was a level of scepticism at the idea of women performing roles traditionally filled by men. However, by the end of the war, even the previously most close-minded farmers were scrambling to secure Land Girls for their farms. They quickly exceeded expectations in terms of targets such as land clearance by the acre or harvests.

By around 1950, the Land Girls were expected to step down from their work in order to allow the previous male employees to resume their positions. This was despite their valuable work and desire by many to continue working. The Queen at the time and Princess Elizabeth (Future Queen Elizabeth II) were strong advocates for the WLA. On many occasions, they invited several members to meet them personally. Regardless of this, however, women who had served were not left with any benefits like the male military. In fact, their work was not officially recognised by the government until 2007/8. A veterans badge was brought out for surviving veterans of the WLA to show thanks. It was only then that events were arranged to celebrate their deeds too.

The Firewatchers

Firewatching was an important, albeit extraordinarily dangerous job, during the bombing raids over Norwich. It was often a job given to children and older people as most men of a certain age were away fighting on the front lines. The actual work involved being hired by a business or by the council to sleep close to, or underneath, a particular building and to listen out for the air raid sirens. When sounded, it was the job of the firewatchers to run up onto the roof and watch for fires and bombs over the city. This helped coordinate fire crews and medical services to where they needed to be, but also involved a far more dangerous task.

If an incendiary bomb landed on the roof on which the firewatchers were stationed, it was their job, before the device detonated, to kick it off of the roof to the cobbles below where it was less likely to damage the property. The children from the Norwich Cathedral School were reportedly sent up onto the cathedral roof during an air raid to protect the building from damage. Many firewatchers were killed in the line of duty but, regardless, the others carried on the terrifying work. We even had firewatchers staying in our Hidden Street under our own building on Castle Meadow here at The Shoebox!


Norfolk, as quite a rural county, saw a large number of evacuees coming in from abroad and from urban areas around England. Some of them, even before the first bombings happened on British soil. In 1939 children were being gathered, usually alongside their schoolmates. They would be shipped over to rural areas of the country without their parents to be looked after by families of strangers. Thorpe Station (today known as Norwich Train Station) saw large numbers of children arrive by train. Confused, as often most of these children had never been away from home before, they were met by a small army of boy scouts and girl guides. They would then be placed on buses to take them to dispersal centers in nearby schools where they were checked over for illness or lice. They were then each given a small bag of rations that included one can of beef, a container of milk, two small blocks of chocolate and a pound of biscuits.

Priority was placed on the safety of children

Children were also coming from outside the country. Large numbers of German Jewish children, realising the horrors the Jewish people were going to face, were sent by their parents to England. Other countries around Germany, especially when it started its blitzkrieg across the continent, sent their children here in a panic as well. The UK’s position across the ocean meant it must have felt like the safest place from the army of death marching towards them. Many of these children arrived in Harwich, Lowestoft and Gt Yarmouth before being dispersed across the country. Gt Yarmouth was a particularly dangerous place to be in the war as the houses, in their tight rows, left no room for shelters from the bombs. The key port town was also an important military and trade target.

For the first couple of years of the war, there wasn’t a large concentration of bombing on the country. Many of the children returned home thinking of it as a false alarm and schools started to reopen. However, in 1940, the bombings started in a far more intense way and they returned rapidly. The port towns such as Gt Yarmouth had to start moving children and other evacuees quickly. They themselves became targets to the Germans and when the Baedeker raids started in 1942, Norwich itself became a dangerous place to be. Thankfully, many children were moved to safer, quieter rural spaces.


Thank you to Nick from Invisible Works, who so kindly allowed us to use his images from his website.


George Plunkett – Raids

Map of bomb strikes on Norwich

Blitz Ghost Photos – Invisible Works

EDP – Norwich Blitz

Archive of Norwich Air Raids

The bombing of Lubeck

ABC Air Raids

Norfolk Archives of Women’s Land Army

Who were the WLA?

Blog on WLA

The WLA after the war

Facts about Norwich and Evacuees

Evacuees during WW2

The crash of the Lady Jane