Bombing in World War II
The destruction of World War II came to Canterbury in the night of 1 June 1942, the worst of a series of air raids, when high explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on the old city.
Known as the Baedeker Blitz (a name derived from German tourist guidebooks which were used to generate revenge attacks on English cities of historic and cultural interest) there was massive destruction to the eastern part of the old city, including Burgate, St George’s Street and the Whitefriars area, where the Simon Langton Grammar Schools were destroyed, with 2,500 properties and 6 acres left in ruin. St George’s Tower, the church where Christopher Marlowe was baptised in 1564, was virtually the only structure in this part of the city to survive the bombing.
The devastation was shown in the final scenes of the 1944 film, A Canterbury Tale, directed by one of the 20th century’s foremost film directors, Michael Powell. Born in nearby Bekesbourne and educated at The King’s School, Michael Powell was fascinated by the blessings and penance conferred by pilgrimage and knew every street and stone in Canterbury. The message of A Canterbury Tale for wartime Britain was that nothing represented by Canterbury in the historic and spiritual life of the nation can be destroyed.
The Cathedral was the Luftwaffe’s target, the Cathedral Library received a direct hit and 16 bombs fell on other parts of the Precincts. But how did the Cathedral so miraculously survive? Parachute flares had been dropped high above the Cathedral to guide the bombers which swept in low. But in a gentle breeze the flares drifted off target to cause most bombs to be dropped over the adjacent city. If spared the worst of the attack by the fortuitous breeze, the incendiary bombs which fell on the Cathedral were pushed off the roof by air raid wardens and firefighters inspired by the towering figure of the Very Reverend Dr. Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury, to be extinguished on the ground.
The Regal Cinema, now the Odeon (by the St George’s roundabout), was also fortunate. A high explosive bomb destroyed the side of the building. Rather than rebuild, the debris was cleared to widen the public footway and a new wall to the reduced building rendered up. This accounts for the cinema’s unsymmetrical appearance to this day. No-one was in the building at the time but that was the end of the film then showing, Gone with the Wind.
Return to the homepage for 20th-century Canterbury, or explore Canterbury’s economic growth through the essays on Canterbury’s commerce and industrial heritage, its retail industry and trading estates, or Canterbury as a boom city. You can also learn more about how Canterbury has been shaped by other facets of its transport infrastructure and the railway, and planning decisions.