The night Arthur Whittlingham saved out Cathedral from the Nazi blitz
PUBLISHED: 10:46 27 June 2017
Archant Norfolk 2016
It was in the early hours on this day 75 years ago when enemy planes dropped marker flares to light up the majestic spire which was, and still is, the symbol of Norwich’s historic grandeur.
Then the attack happened.
Thanks to the bravery, courage and determination of a small band of fire fighters, young and not so young, our beloved cathedral survived on June 27, 1942, as neighbouring buildings were destroyed along with other parts of the city.
Two months had passed since the April blitz which caused so much destruction. There had been a lull in air raids but on this night the Luftwaffe returned as people attempted to go about their business in the ruins which were the City of Norwich.
Estimates vary but reports say more than 30 aircraft headed towards Norwich as the barrage balloons rose in bright moonlight and searchlights flashed across the sky.
The planes were heading straight for Norwich. Flares, incendiaries – said to be around 20,000 of them – dropped on the city during the horrendous attack which turned out to be the biggest fire-bomb raid in East Anglia.
Bonds (now John Lewis) department store went up in flames during the wild inferno. Nurses risked their lives helping patients at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, getting them out of the building to the grounds where they were taken to safety.
Churches and the city’s synagogue were hit. Fires engulfed the streets... around 14 men, women and children lost their lives and many more were seriously hurt or made homeless as the bombs dropped.
And this time the Luftwaffe were out to destroy the building with was the proud symbol of Norwich and our most famous landmark – the beautiful cathedral.
Step forward Arthur Whittingham.
As the former Evening News/Eastern Daily Press journalist turned author Steve Snelling wrote in his book Norwich: A Shattered City: “When Arthur Bensly Whittingham died it was said of him that his life had been given in service to the cathedral he loved.”
Rarely was such a glowing tribute more deserved.
His dedication and devotion to the city’s ecclesiastical masterpiece spanned more than half a century and during that time he gained a reputation as one, if not the, greatest living authority on the history and development of the cathedral and its surroundings.
By June of 1942 he had spent 10 years as surveyor to the fabric in charge of repairs and was an obvious choice as senior fireguard responsible for the protection of the cathedral and The Close.
He had a team of three paid firewatchers and a rota of volunteers, clergymen, office workers, residents and staff from King Edward VI grammar school situated just inside the Erpingham Gate – they were called Group 57.
During the first years of the war regular drills and sporadic raids sharpened their skills. In April of 1942 the cathedral escaped being damaged in the Baedeker raids but the reprieve was short lived.
Arthur was in charge 75 years ago when the attack came in the early hours. More than 850 incendiaries rained down on The Close. Grammar School headmaster Theodore Aceland rounded up some of the senior boys known as the “School House Fire Party.”
Meanwhile Arthur Whittingham and his team went into action, risking their lives to put out fires as they started around the cathedral. They fought for hours until they finally, by good fortune and great foresight, put the fires out.
A small band of volunteers, bolstered by schoolboys and a single fire crew, had dealt with more than eight fires caused by almost 100 incendiaries that had come so close to destroying our magnificent Norwich Cathedral on this day 75 years ago.
Another hero of the night was gate porter Reggie Hardy who, complaining of “them incinders,” managed to climb into the inside of the north transept roof of the cathedral to tackle the flames at close quarters.
At the end of the night the boys and firemen gathered around the still smouldering buildings for a bowl of porridge which smelt of smoke – and tasted wonderful.